What Is Esophageal Dysphagia?

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  • Written By: Jillian O Keeffe
  • Edited By: Shereen Skola
  • Last Modified Date: 03 November 2018
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The technical term for trouble swallowing is dysphagia, and the esophagus is the tube that food moves down to the stomach from the mouth. Esophageal dysphagia refers specifically to an issue that arises in the esophagus, as opposed to problems in the mouth to esophagus area, which is called oropharyngeal dysphagia. Several different conditions can cause difficulty swallowing, such as objects stuck in the esophagus, cancer or age-related muscle weakness.

Scientists derive the word dysphagia from the Greek for difficulty, or problem, dys, and the word for eating, which is phagein. This is a general term for a symptom, rather than a reference to a particular illness. The primary sign of esophageal dysphagia is that the patient cannot swallow normally. The person may also cough while attempting to swallow, or experience a choking feeling.

Sometimes liquids come back up during the swallowing process, and escape through the patient's nose. Food can also get into the windpipe inadvertently. As the patient may not be able to eat a sufficient quantity of food due to the esophageal dysphagia, he or she may also lose weight, and the trauma to the area may also make his or her voice less robust than usual.


A proportion of cases of esophageal dysphagia are as a result of a development problem, especially in children. Kids who have conditions that affect muscles such as muscular dystrophy or cerebral palsy can also suffer esophageal dysphagia. A medical illness called Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD,) which causes the stomach to push its contents back up into the esophagus, and the acid to burn the local tissues, is a possible cause in both kids and adults.

Adults may have tumors in the area that physically block efficient food movement, and therefore cause esophageal dysphagia. A problem with the muscles of this segment of the digestive tract is another possibility, as the esophagus tube is covered with muscles that contract and release to move food down into the stomach, and to swallow, people use approximately 50 different muscle sets in conjunction with each other. As people age, their muscle tone can become weak, and this can also hinder efficient movement of food, and cause the difficulty swallowing.

Conditions like scleroderma, where normal tissue loses flexibility and toughens up, can reduce the performance of the esophagus, and scarring from radiation therapy is another possibility with the same result. At its simplest, esophageal dysphagia is a result of an object stuck in the food pipe, such as a lump of gristly meat, or a small toy, in the case of young children. Diagnostic tests for this problem include x-rays and tubes with cameras on the end that a doctor inserts inside the esophagus. Treatments range from medication to treat conditions like GERD, to surgery for foreign bodies or tumors.



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