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A.D.A.M. Medical Encyclopedia. Atlanta (GA): A.D.A.M.; 2011.

A.D.A.M. Medical Encyclopedia.

Swallowing difficulty

Dysphagia; Impaired swallowing

Last reviewed: October 20, 2009.

Difficulty with swallowing is the sensation that food is stuck in the throat, or from the neck down to just above the abdomen behind the breastbone (sternum).

Considerations

Swallowing is a complex act that involves the mouth, throat area, and esophagus (the muscular tube that moves food to the stomach). Many nerves and muscles control how these body parts work. Part of the act of swallowing is under voluntary control, which means you are aware of controlling the action. However, much of swallowing is involuntary.

Problems at any point -- from chewing food and moving it into the back of the mouth to transporting food down the esophagus into the stomach -- can result in difficulty swallowing.

Chest pain, the feeling of food stuck in the throat, or heaviness or pressure in the neck or upper or lower chest when eating are frequently the result of swallowing difficulties.

Common Causes

There are many different causes of swallowing difficulty, including:

Home Care

Eat slowly, and chew food thoroughly. If a person suddenly shows signs of choking and difficulty breathing, food could be blocking the main airway (trachea). The Heimlich maneuver should be performed immediately.

You may have an easier time swallowing liquids or pureed foods than solids. Avoid very cold or very hot foods if you notice that they worsen the problem.

Call your health care provider if

Call your doctor right away if:

  • You cough or have a fever or shortness of breath
  • You are losing weight
  • Your swallowing problems are getting worse

Call your health care provider if the problem continues, even if the symptoms come and go.

Tell your doctor about any other symptoms you may have including:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Chills
  • Heartburn
  • Nausea
  • Sour taste in mouth
  • Weight loss
  • Wheezing
  • Vomiting, especially if it contains blood

What to expect at your health care provider's office

Your doctor will perform a physical examination and ask questions about your medical history and symptoms, including:

  • Do you have difficulty swallowing solids, liquids, or both?
  • Do you cough or choke during or after eating?
  • Do you have a weak voice?
  • Is the problem constant or does it come and go?
  • Is it getting worse?
  • Does it hurt to swallow? Do you have chest discomfort when you swallow?
  • Does it feel like you have a lump in your throat?
  • Have you breathed in or swallowed any irritating substances?
  • Are you losing any weight?
  • What other symptoms do you have?
  • What other medical conditions do you have?
  • What medications do you take?

The following tests may be done:

References

  1. Orlando RC. Diseases of the esophagus. In: Goldman L, Ausiello D, eds. Cecil Medicine. 23rd ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier;2007:chap 140.

Review Date: 10/20/2009.

Reviewed by: David C. Dugdale, III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine; and George F. Longstreth, MD, Department of Gastroenterology, Kaiser Permanente Medical Care Program, San Diego, California. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.

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The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only — they do not constitute endorsementscof those other sites. © 1997–2011 A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.

Copyright © 2012, A.D.A.M., Inc.

A.D.A.M., Inc. is accredited by URAC, also known as the American Accreditation HealthCare Commission (www.urac.org). URAC's accreditation program is an independent audit to verify that A.D.A.M. follows rigorous standards of quality and accountability. A.D.A.M. is among the first to achieve this important distinction for online health information and services. Learn more about A.D.A.M.'s editorial policy, editorial process and privacy policy. A.D.A.M. is also a founding member of Hi-Ethics and subscribes to the principles of the Health on the Net Foundation (www.hon.ch).

The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only — they do not constitute endorsementscof those other sites. © 1997–2011 A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.

Copyright © 2012, A.D.A.M., Inc.

What works?

  • Interventions for swallowing difficulty in children with neurological impairmentInterventions for swallowing difficulty in children with neurological impairment
    Oropharyngeal dysphagia, or swallowing difficulty, can be defined as problems with chewing and preparing food, difficulty moving food through the mouth to the back of the tongue, and difficulty with swallowing and movement of food through the 'throat' or pharynx. Many children with neurological impairment experience swallowing difficulties, including those with acquired brain impairment (for example, cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injury, stroke), genetic syndromes (for example, Down syndrome, Rett syndrome) and degenerative conditions (for example, myotonic dystrophy).
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Figures

  • Throat anatomy.

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