The condition featured by difficulty swallowing is medically termed as dysphagia. Odynophagia is the term for painful swallowing. In some cases, a person has difficulty distinguishing these two conditions. This is because food that gets stuck in the esophagus causes pain and a patient with dysphagia may describe his/her condition as odynophagia. However, the two conditions are not the same.
A mild case of dysphagia can only cause a person to stop eating for a minute or so, while in severe dysphagia a person does not consume sufficient amount of calories which leads to malnutrition and weight loss.
Some patient with dysphagia may suffer from abnormality in function of the nerves and muscles in the lower throat area which can lead to aspiration pneumonia.
Causes of Dysphagia
Dysphagia occurs due to problems related to process of swallowing. This process occurs in three stages.
During the first stage of swallowing, movement of the tongue prepares the food inside the mouth and it is chewed and softened when mixed with the saliva. The tongue also pushes the food towards the back of the mouth and upper throat or pharynx where the second phase of swallowing begins.
The second stage of swallowing involves an automatic reflex in which the food passes through the throat to enter the esophagus or swallowing tube. During this process, the voice box or the larynx closes tightly to prevent food and liquid from entering the breathing passage.
The third stage of swallowing starts when food enters the esophagus, an organ that connects the throat and stomach. The food moves to the stomach due to contractions of the muscles in the esophagus.
Dysphagia can occur due to a variety of causes such as physical obstruction, problems related to neural control of the organs involved in the swallowing process or muscle abnormalities in the throat and esophagus.
Dysphagia often results from underlying conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, stroke, multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, head injury, muscular dystrophy, myasthenia gravis and Sjogren’s syndrome. Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), cancer of the esophagus, mouth cancer, scleroderma and dermatomyositis can be also responsible for dysphagia.
Smoking, heavy alcohol drinking and certain medications can increase the risk of dysphagia.
Prevention of Dysphagia
It may be possible to prevent dysphagia if it is caused by another health condition that can be also prevented. However, dysphagia due to chronic neuromuscular conditions and diseases of connective tissue cannot be prevented. With proper treatment, dysphagia due to GERD can be reduced or prevented.