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Dysphagia is the medical term for difficulty swallowing, or the feeling that food is "sticking" in your throat or chest. The feeling is actually in your esophagus, the tube that carries food from your mouth to your stomach. You may experience dysphagia when swallowing solid foods, liquids, or both.
Oropharyngeal dysphagia is when you have trouble moving food from your mouth into your upper esophagus. Esophageal dysphagia is when you have trouble moving food through your esophagus to your stomach. It is the most common kind of dysphagia.
Dysphagia can strike at any age, although the risk increases with age.
Signs and Symptoms
Symptoms of oropharyngeal dysphagia include the following:
Symptoms of esophageal dysphagia include the following:
What Causes It?
Several conditions can cause dysphagia. In children, it is often due to physical malformations, conditions such as cerebral palsy or muscular dystrophy, or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Dysphagia in adults may be due to tumors (benign or cancerous), conditions that cause the esophagus to narrow, neuromuscular conditions, stroke, or GERD. It can also be caused when the muscle in your esophagus doesn't relax enough to let food pass into your stomach. Other risk factors include smoking, excessive alcohol use, certain medications, and teeth or dentures in poor condition.
What to Expect at Your Provider's Office
Your health care provider may ask about your symptoms and eating habits. For infants and children, the health care provider may want to observe them eating. Your provider may also listen to your heart, take your pulse, and ask about your medical history.
A variety of tests can be used for dysphagia:
Health care providers typically treat dysphagia with drugs, exercises, and procedures that open the esophagus, or with surgery. Your treatment will depend on the cause, the seriousness, and any complications you may be experiencing. You usually do not need to go to the hospital, as long as you are able to eat enough and have a low risk of complications. If your esophagus is severely blocked, however, you may be hospitalized. Infants and children with dysphagia are often hospitalized.
To treat oropharyngeal dysphagia, you may learn special exercises that stimulate the nerves involved in swallowing. You may also learn to position your head in ways that help you swallow.
For esophageal dysphagia involving an esophageal muscle that doesn't relax, your doctor may dilate your esophagus with a balloon attached to an endoscope. If the problem is GERD, you will be given antacids or proton pump inhibitors. Your doctor may also prescribe medications that relax your esophagus and prevent spasms. If dysphagia is due to a tumor or other obstruction, you may need surgery.
Complementary and Alternative Therapies
Herbs are generally a safe way to strengthen and tone the body's systems, but they can cause side effects and possibly interact with other medications. As with any therapy, you should work with your health care provider before starting any treatment. You may use herbs as dried extracts (capsules, powders, teas), glycerites (glycerine extracts), or tinctures (alcohol extracts). Unless otherwise indicated, make teas with 1 tsp. herb per cup of hot water. Steep covered 5 - 10 minutes for leaf or flowers, and 10 - 20 minutes for roots. Drink 2 - 4 cups a day. Always tell your health care provider about any herbs you may be taking.
You may use the following tinctures, alone or in combination:
The above herbs have soothing properites, but they can also interfere with absorption of other medications and should be taken at least 2 hours apart from any medicines.
In addition, you may use a combination of three of the following herbs as a tea or tincture. Use equal parts of the herbs, 1 tsp. of each per cup of water and steep 10 minutes 3 times a day; or equal parts of tincture, 30 - 60 drops 3 times a day. These three herbs are relaxing in nature, and should not be combined with sedative medications or alcohol.
Few clinical studies have examined the effectiveness of specific homeopathic remedies. However, a professional homeopath may recommend one or more of the following treatments for dysphagia based on their knowledge and clinical experience. Before prescribing a remedy, homeopaths take into account a person's constitutional type -- your physical, emotional, and intellectual makeup. An experienced homeopath assesses all of these factors when determining the most appropriate remedy for a particular individual.
The following are some of the most common remedies used for dysphagia:
Several clinical studies have reported that acupuncture can stimulate the swallowing reflex in people who have dysphagia due to stroke. However, other studies show no benefit. More research is needed to evaluate the therapeutic effect of acupuncture on dysphagia after stroke.
Dysphagia should not limit your activities, but your health care provider may restrict your diet. If left untreated, dysphagia can lead to inadequate nutrition, dehydration, recurrent upper respiratory infections, and even pneumonia.
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Review Date: 3/2/2012
Reviewed By: Steven D. Ehrlich, NMD, Solutions Acupuncture, a private practice specializing in complementary and alternative medicine, Phoenix, AZ. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network.
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