Dysphagia is the medical term for difficulty swallowing, which is distinct from odynophagia, which is pain while swallowing. The two can be had together in that the pain causes the dysfunction, or they may be entirely separate issues, either where a patient cannot easily swallow despite the absence of pain, or there is pain, but the patient is able to overcome it. In the following article, you will learn what, medically speaking, dysphagia is, why it happens, and what to do about it if it happens.
What It Is
Dysphagia happens when there is a lack of pharyngeal sensation or other inadequacies of the swallowing mechanism. Technically, it is classified under ‘signs and symptoms in the International Statistical Classification of Diseases version ten (ICD-10) rather than a medical condition in its own right, as it is usually associated with a separate underlying health issue. If food cannot be swallowed properly, then there is a risk that it might become lodged partway down the esophagus, leading to various medical complications. These can range from mild to no injury situations, or they can lead to more serious conditions developing, such as aspiration, esophagitis, i.e., inflammation of the esophagus, refeeding syndrome, where a metabolic disturbance leads to sensations of malnutrition, infections, gastritis, i.e., inflammation of the stomach lining, or even life-threatening situations, such as oesophageal cancers, pneumonia, or a complete blockage of the airway, leading to asphyxiation.
Why It Happens
Swallowing as a physical function goes far beyond gulping something down the back of one’s throat. Rather, the esophagus needs to continuously warp and contract, pushing food and drink all the way down the neck, through the center of the chest, and into the stomach, located about halfway down the body. Generally, we barely notice this because most of the process is part of an autonomic response, whereby the peripheral nervous system regulates involuntary physiological processes, including digestion, respiration, or your heart rate. However, where swallowing is concerned, this autonomic response is triggered by sensory receptors communicating with motor neurons. In other words, if the esophagus cannot feel the food, then the body won’t swallow it properly. Dysphagia can also be psychogenic, where mental stressors manifest in physical symptoms, also called phagophobia, characterized by an irrational fear of swallowing.
How to Treat It
The easiest way to treat dysphagia is through swallowing therapies which rely on a combination of behavioral techniques and remedies such as some SimplyThick gel, which increases the viscosity of a consumable substance, making it easier for receptors in the esophagus to detect it. Other treatments include dietary changes, various medications, or, in extreme cases, even feeding tubes or surgical options. If the dysphagia is psychogenic, then psychiatric solutions, as well as cognitive behavioral therapy, may well be considered. Good hydration is also recommended for patients with dysphagia, as dehydration can easily trigger or exacerbate it.
When to Seek Medical Advice
Diagnosing dysphagia is best done early, as while it is usually the result of a benign condition, if left alone, it could develop or it could be related to a more serious health issue. Generally, the rule of thumb is that if something is either chronic, i.e., it is still going after six weeks or more, or it is acute, i.e., severe enough that it has begun to have a serious adverse effect on day-to-day life, then it is at that point worthy of medical attention.