Dysphagia/ Difficulty in swallowing

Dysphagia means difficulty in swallowing. Dysphagia is a medical term used to describe swallowing disorder. Dysphagia is a symptom which is either alone as a single problem or it may be associated with heart burn, vomiting or pain.

Causes of dysphagia

Swallowing disorder/dysphagia can occur due to problems in oropharynx (Oropharyngeal dysphagia) or oesophagus (oesophageal dysphagia).

Oropharyngeal dysphagia – Swallowing disorder in which problem in initiation of swallowing at the level of pharynx and upper esophageal sphincter (opening of food pipe). Oropharyngeal dysphagia may be due to either functional or structural.
Functional means pharynx and esophagus are not functioning properly because of neuromuscular causes because the nerves controlling the muscles of the mouth, back of throat (pharynx) and opening of the esophagus (upper esophageal sphincter) have direct connections with the brain through cranial nerves, and can therefore be damaged in diseases involving the brain or cranial nerves. Neuromuscular disorder is the most common cause of oropharyngeal dysphagia.
Structural cause means narrowing of area or stricture formation, any swelling or lump/tumor obstructing from surrounding area.
Patients have difficulty in starting of swallowing and may complain of choking, nasal regurgitation or tracheal aspiration. Drooling, dysarthria, hoarseness and cranial nerve or other neurological signs may be present.

Esophageal dysphagia – Esophageal dysphagia may be due to either abnormality in esophageal normal peristalsis movement or structural disorder, narrowing of esophageus (food pipe) or obstruction in lumen. Narrowing of esophagus may be due to scarring due to acid reflux disease, inflammation of esophageal linings because of acid reflux, any obstruction in esophageal lumen either because of lump/tumor, or compression from surrounding area like any growth in chest or because of enlarged heart. Eosinophillic esophagitis is an inflammation in which inflammatory cells are all eosinophils.
Functional disorders of esophagus may be due to stiffening of esophageal muscles, weakness of esophageal muscles (Scleroderma), or disorder caused by nerve and muscle which affect relaxation of lower esophageal sphincter known as achalasia, esophageal spasm.
Patients with oesophageal disease complain of food ‘sticking’ after swallowing, although the level at which this is felt correlates poorly with the true site of obstruction. Swallowing of liquids is normal until strictures become extreme.
Achalasia, a condition where the esophagus fails to relax and allow food to pass, may be difficult to diagnose because symptoms progress slowly. In achalasia, difficulty may occur with both solids and liquids, and symptoms may be severe enough to cause weight loss. Patients with esophageal spasm can have chest pain as well.


Dysphagia is a swallowing disorder which should be investigated urgently.

1. Signs, symptoms and medical history is very important to distinguish between esophageal or oropharyngeal dysphagia.
2. Endoscopy – Endoscopy (examination of the esophagus using a tube with a light and a video camera at the end) is the investigation of choice because This test not only allows the doctor to inspect the lumen and lining of the esophagus, but biopsy ( taking out samples of abnormal tissue for examination), can be done at same time and if appropriate, treatment can be performed by stretching out narrowed areas which is called as dilatation, so in short, it allows dilatation of strictures and biopsy.
3. Barium swallow with video fluoroscopic – If no abnormality found in endoscopy then Barium swallow with video fluoroscopic swallowing assessment is indicated to see whether there is any motility disorder.
In this procedure, patient swallows barium containing fluid and same time doctor observes the swallowing on X-ray screen to see swallowing functions of esophageal muscles and nerves.
4. Oesophageal high-resolution manometry – If a narrowing is not seen either on endoscopy or barium swallow, measurement of pressures within the oesophagus while swallowing sips of water (manometry) can help find out if the muscle of the oesophagus squeezes or relaxes abnormally while swallowing, and can diagnose conditions like achalasia or esophageal spasm.



Treatment of dysphagia depend upon the cause of dysphagia,
If dysphagia caused by acid reflux disorder, eosinophillic esophagitis or any infection in esophagus then it can be completely resolve with the medicines.
If stricture or narrowing is the cause for dysphagia then endoscopic dilatation is the treatment but sometimes it may need repetitive dilatation or frequent sitting.
If achalasia is the cause of dysphagia then it can be treated with either surgery or endoscopic forceful dilation of lower end of esophagus.
When dysphagia is due to either obstruction or cancer growth then stent or tube is used to keep the esophagus open.


Please note: Any medical information published on this website is not intended as a substitute for informed medical advice and you should not take any action before consulting with a health care professional.


Content source –  Davidson’s Principles and Practice of Medicine(22ndedition), http://patients.gi.org/topics/dysphagia/