What Is Dysphagia?


Dysphagia is a term that describes a symptom based on swallowing difficulty. According to the magazine Professional Pharmacy, this pathology expresses the inability to progress normally the contents of the mouth to the stomach. This includes both the initiation of swallowing food and the sensation that swallowed material is retained in the esophagus.

Due to the multiple causes that can generate this symptom and the discomfort that it produces, knowing the reasons for the appearance of dysphagia and how to combat it is essential. Next, we show you everything you need to know about it.

Types and distribution

According to studies compiled by the Complutense University of Madrid (UCM), the percentage of inhabitants with this symptom in any location is 10%, which is a very common occurrence. This same source compiles that in Spain, the prevalence (percentage of affected people) of dysphagia is 8.3%, regardless of age. However, it was observed that it is much more common in women.

According to sources already cited, this annoying symptom can be divided into two broad categories. We will explain them to you below.

Oropharyngeal dysphagia

In this case, the transfer of the bolus from the mouth to the esophagus is compromised. According to studies carried out by the World Health Organization (WHO), this variant is much more prevalent in elderly people over 75 years of age, in patients with cerebrovascular accidents and in people who have been intubated as part of medical treatment.

It is a symptom caused by neuromuscular disorders that affect the hypopharynx (the part that is next to and behind the larynx) and the upper esophagus. In the most serious cases, the patient cannot swallow his saliva, which causes it to accumulate in the oral cavity.

Esophageal dysphagia

Here we refer to a symptom characterized by the difficulty of transporting food through the esophagus until it reaches the stomach. If the patient has disturbances to swallow both solids and liquids, the cause may be a motility disorder.

On the other hand, if you only have problems with solid meals, we are surely facing a mere mechanical obstruction in the esophagus. That is growth within the lumen of the organ that stops the descent of food.

Causes of dysphagia

As we have seen, dysphagia is a very general symptom. Scientific studies have tried to calculate its prevalence in different clinical pictures. Some of the usual is the following.

Neurodegenerative diseases

In neurodegenerative diseases, the presence of oropharyngeal dysphagia is common:

  • Bulbar ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) presents this symptom in 100% of cases because according to the Luzón Foundation, this pathology affects the neurons located in the brainstem. This results in difficulty speaking and swallowing.
  • Parkinson’s patients suffer swallowing difficulties between 35% and 45%. It is not a coincidence, as it is characterized by neuronal death.
  • In the case of multiple sclerosis, the prevalence reaches up to 45%.
  • Finally, more than 80% of patients with Alzheimer’s present this symptom.

As we have seen, swallowing difficulties are closely related to diseases of neurodegenerative origin. This is not a coincidence, since pharyngeal muscle movements are essential for the transport of food. When neurons fail, they can be disabled.

Other causes

Even though neurodegenerative and cerebrovascular disorders are at the center of suspicion in the face of this annoying symptom, previously cited bibliographic sources emphasize that many other pathologies can cause it. Among them, we find the following:

  • Achalasia: a rare disorder that consists of the inability of the esophageal sphincter to relax to swallow food.
  • Gastroesophageal reflux: the rise of food mixed with stomach acids into the esophagus involuntarily.
  • Tonsillitis: Inflammation of the palatine tonsils, due to viral or bacterial causes.
  • Cancers:  for example, the appearance of tumors in the esophagus.

Dysphagia: what to remember?

As we have seen, dysphagia does not respond to pathology in itself but is a symptom that alerts the patient to an underlying disease. Despite how annoying it may be, official pages, such as Nestle HealthScience, collect various tips to address it.

Some of them are modifying the consistency of foods and drinks to prevent them from being too harsh or dry. Also, add milk or sauces to meals so that they acquire a softer consistency or avoid the consumption of fruits and vegetables with seeds.

Unfortunately, this symptom does not have a solution in itself, since the treatment is based on addressing the pathology that causes it. An accurate diagnosis is a fundamental stage that must be conducted by a medical team experienced in this disorder.

Debbie Lentz

Debbie Lentz

Accomplished Global Supply Chain executive with significant experience in the consumer products and retail industries with large brand name firms in the public and private sectors. Strategic and operational, drives change and creates efficiencies through integration of end to end process improvement focused on enhancing the customer experience and fostering company growth. Collaborative leader with high integrity who builds talented, results-oriented teams.

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