We all have difficulty swallowing at times. Sometimes food or liquid has trouble getting down our throats. We cough and choke, most likely because we’re eating too fast or not chewing properly.While this is a common problem, people with certain medical conditions are more likely to experience swallowing difficulties, known as dysphagia, on a regular basis.
Dysphagia is the medical name for difficulty swallowing, a condition that is usually triggered by muscle and nerve problems. The symptoms of dysphagia vary among people, as the difficulty may involve swallowing food, drink or saliva. Eating becomes a challenge, and malnutrition can result when the body cannot get the food and fluids necessary for nourishment.
For some, pain while swallowing can cause a related condition called odynophagia. This condition is described as feeling a lump in the throat.
The Mechanics of Swallowing
While swallowing may seem like a simple function, nearly 50 muscles and nerves are involved in the process. Here’s a quick outline of what happens when we start eating:
Dypshagia is associated with difficulty at any of these points in the swallowing process.
Multiple Causes of Dysphagia
In very old age, the muscles used in swallowing naturally become weaker,which cause swallowing problems.Diseases that involve the neuromuscular (nerve and muscular) system may also lead to dysphagia. These include amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Bell’s palsy, cerebrovascular stroke, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease.
For some people, the problem is in the mouth and/or throat – as a weak tongue or cheek muscles affects the ability to chew. For others, they have difficulty starting the swallow/gulping action. People can also suffer from weak throat muscles, which affect the ability to move food toward the stomach. A disorder of the esophagus also causes dysphagia.
The Risks of Dysphagia
Asphyxiation:When the throat or windpipe (airway) is blocked by food, the immediate danger is that oxygen cannot pass into the lungs. This is life-threatening. Without oxygen, brain damage can occur in as little as 4 to 6 minutes. Rapid first aid for choking can save a person's life.
Often, a strong cough will clear the airway and resolve the coughing/swallowing problem. Abdominal thrusts, are also very effective. However, this is not appropriate, or difficult (and even dangerous) for infants, pregnant women and others.
Pneumonia and upper respiratory infections: If food or liquid cannot clear the throat, it may stay in the airway. Often, it enters the lungs, attracting harmful bacteria that leads to a lung infection called aspiration pneumonia.
Malnutrition:People who are unaware of their dysphagia may not be getting vital nutrients for good health.
Dehydration:People who cannot drink properly do not have adequate fluid, leading to shortage of liquid in the body.
All these conditions can be life-threatening, so it’s important to recognize the symptoms – and get medical attention.
Diagnosis and Dysphagia Treatment
While symptoms are an indication of dysphagia, the doctor will conduct an endoscopy procedure. A thin, flexible tube, inserted down the throat, will provide a visualization of the areas involved in swallowing.
These tests are also part of the diagnostic process:
Treatment for dysphagia involves these steps:
Dysphagia is a serious condition that requires medical attention. If an elderly friend or relative appears to be having difficulty swallowing and eating, make sure they see a primary care doctor and possibly a gastroenterologist (digestive specialist).
What to do in a Choking Emergency
In emergency situations involving choking, don’t delay. Follow these steps in performing abdominal thrusts until Dechoker help arrives. Take time now to familiarize yourself with the basic steps for this life-saving procedure.
Abdominal thrusts are a first aid maneuver:
How to do abdominal thrusts:
While someone is performing abdominal thrusts, the Dechoker, first aid device needs to be retrieved. Once the Dechoker arrives, it should be deployed immediately to clear the airway in a timely manner.
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For more information on dysphagia:
WebMD: Difficulty Swallowing (Dysphagia)
Medical News Today: Dysphagia: Symptoms, Diagnosis and Treatment