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A Medical Look at Dysphagia

By Valeri Thelen, Staff Writer

(Page 1 of 3)

The Agency for Health Care Policy and Research estimates that more than 60,000 Americans die from complications associated with swallowing difficulties each year—more than liver and kidney disease, as well as HIV/ AIDS combined.

Swallowing difficulties are a serious problem for many loved ones and a stress factor for caregivers nationwide. There are four main families of dysphagia, which have many of the same symptoms, but different causes and treatments.

First, preparatory dysphagia is the actual loss of smell or taste sensation and saliva. It also includes weak chewing muscles as well as painful gums and cheeks.

Second, oral dysphagia is caused when part of the tongue is missing and there is then impaired tongue control and sensory loss.

Esophageal dysphagia is the sensation of food sticking in the base of a loved one’s throat or chest. There are quite a few causes of this dysphagia, ranging from narrowing or weakening of the esophagus muscles to food or other objects causing obstruction.

Oropharyngeal dysphagia relates to nerves and weakened throat muscles, making it difficult to move food from the mouth to the throat and esophagus. This is mainly caused by neurological disorders or cancer, causing choking, gagging or coughing when a loved one attempts to swallow.

Regardless of the type, dysphagia can be debilitating to a loved one’s daily life, but is also treatable. Each diagnosis and treatment is as unique as the person suffering from the swallowing disorder.


The signs and symptoms that a caregiver should be aware of if suspecting dysphagia include:

  • Pain while swallowing
  • Inability to swallow
  • Sensation of food getting stuck in the throat or chest, or behind breastbone
  • Increased drooling
  • Hoarseness
  • Bringing food back up (regurgitation)
  • Frequent heartburn
  • Food or stomach acid backing up into a loved one’s throat
  • Unexpected weight loss
  • Coughing or gagging when swallowing


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