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Difficulty Swallowing


by Norton J. Greenberger, MD

Some people have difficulty swallowing (dysphagia). In dysphagia, foods and/or liquids do not move normally from the throat (pharynx) to the stomach. People feel as though food or liquids become stuck on the way down the tube that connects the throat to the stomach (esophagus). Dysphagia should not be confused with lump in throat (globus sensation—see Lump in Throat), in which people have the sensation of a lump in their throat but have no difficulty swallowing.


Dysphagia can cause people to inhale (aspirate) mouth secretions and/or material they eat or drink. Aspiration can cause acute pneumonia. If aspiration occurs over a long period of time, people may develop chronic lung disease. People who have had dysphagia for a long time are often inadequately nourished and lose weight.


Although most people take swallowing for granted, it is actually a complicated process. For swallowing to take place normally, the brain must unconsciously coordinate the activity of numerous small muscles of the throat and the esophagus. These muscles must contract strongly and in the proper sequence to push food from the mouth to the back of the throat and then down the esophagus. Finally, the lower part of the esophagus must relax to allow food to enter the stomach. Thus, swallowing difficulty can result from the following:

  • Disorders of the brain or nervous system

  • Disorders of the muscles in general

  • Disorders of the esophagus (a physical blockage or a motility [movement] disorder)

Brain and nervous system disorders that cause difficulty swallowing include stroke, Parkinson disease, multiple sclerosis, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). People with these disorders typically have other symptoms in addition to difficulty swallowing. Many have already been diagnosed with these disorders.

General muscle disorders that cause difficulty swallowing include myasthenia gravis, dermatomyositis, and muscular dystrophy.

A physical blockage can result from cancer of the esophagus, rings or webs of tissue across the inside of the esophagus, and scarring of the esophagus from chronic acid reflux or from swallowing a caustic liquid. Sometimes the esophagus is compressed by a nearby organ or structure such as an enlarged thyroid gland, a bulge in the large artery in the chest (aortic aneurysm), or a tumor in the middle of the chest.

Esophageal motility disorders include achalasia (in which the rhythmic contractions of the esophagus are greatly decreased and the lower esophageal muscle does not relax normally to allow food to pass into the stomach) and esophageal spasm. Systemic sclerosis (scleroderma) may also cause a motility disorder.


Not every episode of dysphagia requires immediate evaluation by a doctor. The following information can help people decide when a doctor’s evaluation is needed and help them know what to expect during the evaluation.

Warning signs

In people with dysphagia, certain symptoms and characteristics are cause for concern. They include

  • Symptoms of a complete physical blockage (such as drooling or inability to swallow anything at all)

  • Dysphagia resulting in weight loss

  • Painful swallowing (odynophagia)

  • A new problem in nerve, spinal cord, or brain function, particularly any weakness

When to see a doctor

People who have warning signs should see a doctor right away unless the only warning sign is weight loss. In such cases, a delay of a week or so is not harmful.

People with dysphagia but no warning signs should see their doctor within a week or so. However, people who cough or choke whenever they eat or drink should be evaluated sooner.

What the doctor does

Doctors first ask questions about the person's symptoms and medical history. Doctors then do a physical examination. What they find during the history and physical examination often suggests a cause of the dysphagia and the tests that may need to be done (see Table: Some Causes and Features of Swallowing Difficulty).

During the history, doctors ask about the following:

  • Any difficulty swallowing solids, liquids, or both

  • Food coming out the nose

  • Drooling or food spilling from the mouth

  • Coughing or choking while eating

People with equal difficulty swallowing liquids and solids are more likely to have a motility disorder. People who have gradually increasing difficulty swallowing first solids and then liquids may have a worsening physical blockage, such as a tumor. Food unintentionally coming out of the nose or mouth suggests a neurologic or muscular problem rather than a problem with the esophagus.

Doctors look for symptoms that suggest neuromuscular, gastrointestinal, and connective tissue disorders. Major neuromuscular symptoms include weakness, either constant weakness of a body part (such as an arm or leg) or off-and-on weakness that occurs during activity and is relieved by rest; walking (gait) or balance disturbance; involuntary, rhythmic, shaking movements (tremors); and difficulty speaking. Doctors also need to know whether the person has a known disease that causes dysphagia (see Table: Some Causes and Features of Swallowing Difficulty).

Doctors then do a physical examination. The physical examination is focused on the neurologic examination, but doctors also pay attention to the person's nutritional status and any abnormalities of the skin and/or muscles. During the physical examination, doctors look at the following:

  • Tremors present while the person is at rest

  • Muscle strength (including muscles of the eyes, mouth, and face)

  • The performance of a repetitive action (such as blinking or counting aloud) by people who become weak with activity (to see how rapidly their performance worsens)

  • The way people walk and their balance

  • The skin for rash and thickening or texture changes, particularly on the fingertips

  • Muscles, to see whether any are wasting away or visibly twitching under the skin (fasciculations) or feel tender

  • The neck for an enlarged thyroid gland or other mass

Some Causes and Features of Swallowing Difficulty


Common Features*


Neurologic disorders


Usually a previous diagnosis of a stroke

Weakness or paralysis on one side of the body, difficulty speaking, difficulty walking, or a combination

CT or MRI of the brain

Parkinson disease

Muscle stiffness and fewer voluntary movements than normal

Involuntary, rhythmic, shaking movements (tremors), incoordination (ataxia), and balance disturbance

A doctor’s examination

Sometimes CT or MRI

Multiple sclerosis

Come-and-go symptoms involving various parts of the body, including vision problems, muscle weakness, and/or abnormal sensations

Sometimes weak, clumsy movements


Often a spinal tap

Some motor neuron disorders, such as

  • Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis

  • Progressive bulbar palsy

  • Pseudobulbar palsy

Muscle twitching, wasting, and weakness

Progressive difficulty with chewing, swallowing, and talking

Electrodiagnostic tests (such as needle electromyography, which involves stimulating muscles then recording their electrical activity)

Laboratory tests

MRI of the brain

Muscle disorders

Myasthenia gravis

Weak, drooping eyelids and weak eye muscles

Excessive weakness of muscles after they are used

Use of a drug (given intravenously) that temporarily improves strength if the cause is myasthenia


Blood tests


Muscle weakness

Fever, fatigue, and weight loss

Sometimes joint pain and/or swelling

Sometimes a dusky, red rash

Blood tests


Muscle biopsy

Muscular dystrophy

Muscle weakness beginning in childhood

Muscle biopsy

Genetic testing

Motility (movement) disorders of the esophagus

Achalasia (rhythmic contractions of the esophagus are greatly decreased, and the lower esophageal muscle does not relax normally)

Difficulty swallowing (dysphagia) solids and liquids that worsens over months to years

Sometimes regurgitation (spitting up) of undigested food while sleeping

Discomfort in the chest

Fullness after a small meal (early satiety), nausea, vomiting, bloating, and symptoms that are worsened by food

Measurements of pressure produced during contractions of the esophagus (esophageal manometry)

Diffuse esophageal spasm

Chest pain

Swallowing difficulty comes and goes

Barium swallow

Esophageal manometry

Systemic sclerosis (scleroderma)

Raynaud phenomenon

Joint pain and/or swelling

Swelling, thickening, and tightening of the skin of the fingers and sometimes of the face and other areas

Occasionally heartburn, difficulty swallowing, and shortness of breath

A doctor’s examination

Usually blood tests

Physical blockage of the esophagus

Narrowing by scar tissue resulting from exposure to stomach acid (peptic stricture)

A long history of gastrointestinal reflux symptoms (such as heartburn)

Endoscopy (examination of internal structures with a flexible viewing tube)

Esophageal cancer

Constant difficulty swallowing foods and liquids that worsens rapidly

Weight loss

Chest pain



Lower esophageal rings

Swallowing difficulty comes and goes

Barium swallow

Compression of the esophagus, as may be caused by

  • A bulge in the large artery in the chest (aortic aneurysm)

  • An enlarged thyroid gland

  • A tumor in the chest

Sometimes an enlarged thyroid gland

Barium swallow

X-rays taken after a radiopaque dye (which is visible on x-rays) is injected into an artery (arteriography)

If aortic aneurysm or a tumor is suspected, CT

Ingestion of a caustic substance, such as strong acids and alkalis

Swallowing difficulty occurs weeks to months after a known ingestion


*Features include symptoms and the results of the doctor's examination. Features mentioned are typical but not always present.

CT = computed tomography; MRI = magnetic resonance imaging.


Possible tests include

  • Upper endoscopy

  • Barium swallow

For people who have symptoms of a complete or nearly complete blockage, doctors immediately look in the esophagus with a flexible tube (upper endoscopy).

For people whose symptoms do not suggest a complete blockage, doctors usually take x-rays while the person swallows barium liquid (which shows up on x-rays). Typically, people first swallow plain barium liquid and then barium liquid mixed with some material such as a marshmallow or cracker. If the barium swallow suggests blockage, doctors usually then do upper endoscopy to look for the cause (particularly to rule out cancer). If the barium test is negative or suggests a motility disorder, doctors do esophageal motility tests. In motility tests, people swallow a thin tube containing many pressure sensors. As people swallow, the pressure sensors show whether the esophagus is contracting normally and whether the lower part of the esophagus is relaxing normally.


The best way to treat dysphagia is to treat the specific cause.

To help relieve symptoms, doctors usually advise people to take small bites and chew food thoroughly.

People with dysphagia caused by a stroke may benefit from treatment by a rehabilitation specialist. Rehabilitation measures may involve changing head position while eating, retraining the swallowing muscles, doing exercises that improve the ability to accommodate a lump of food in the mouth, or doing strength and coordination exercises for the tongue.

People who cannot swallow without a high risk of choking may need to stop eating and be fed through a feeding tube placed through the wall of their abdomen into their stomach or small intestine.

Essentials for Older People

Chewing, swallowing, tasting, and communicating require intact, coordinated neurologic and muscular function in the mouth, face, and neck. Oral motor function in particular declines measurably with age, even in healthy people. Decline in function may occur in several ways:

  • As people age, the muscles required for chewing decrease in strength and coordination, especially among people with partial or complete dentures. This decrease may lead to a tendency to swallow larger food particles, which can increase the risk of choking or aspiration.

  • With increased age, it takes longer to move food from the mouth to the throat, which increases the likelihood of aspiration.

After age-related changes, the most common causes of oral motor disorders are neuromuscular disorders (such as cranial neuropathies caused by diabetes, stroke, Parkinson disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or multiple sclerosis). Sometimes, treatments can contribute to oral motor disorders. For example, drugs (such as anticholinergics or diuretics), radiation therapy to the head and neck, and chemotherapy can greatly impair saliva production. Reduced saliva production (hyposalivation) is a major cause of delayed and impaired swallowing.

In addition to their regular doctor, people with oral motor disorders or dysfunction are also treated by specialists in prosthetic dentistry, rehabilitative medicine, speech pathology, otolaryngology, and gastroenterology.

Key Points

  • People who have dysphagia typically need upper endoscopy or a barium swallow test.

  • If the endoscopy and barium test are normal or if they suggest a motility disorder, doctors do esophageal motility tests.

  • Treatment is aimed at the cause.

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