Swallowing disorders, in which patients experience difficulty with swallowing which can lead to a variety of problems from malnutrition to difficulty speaking, fall into a number of categories. When a patient goes to the doctor for help with a swallowing disorder, the doctor will take the time to diagnose the patient properly, as determining the cause is a very important step in swallowing disorder treatment. Doctors who can evaluate swallowing disorders include otolaryngologists, speech pathologists, and oncologists.
There are three main types of swallowing disorder, divided on the basis of where the problem is occurring: esophageal, pharyngeal, and oral. The location of the problem can be ascertained with the use of a physical exam, along with medical imaging studies of the head and neck, a patient interview, and monitoring of the patient. Once the site of the disorder is pinpointed, a doctor can determine what is causing the problem and develop a treatment plan which will address the patient's condition.
Swallowing disorders are classically associated with other medical problems which are causing obstructions which make it hard to swallow, pain which makes it difficult to eat or drink comfortably, contractions or narrowing which impede swallowing, and similar problems. Some examples of problems which can lead to swallowing disorders include: traumatic brain injuries, strokes, muscular disorders, head and spinal injuries, central nervous system disorders, cancers of the head and neck, and medical problems involving the esophagus, such as gastrointestinal reflux disorder.
It is also possible for swallowing disorders to appear independently. Some are associated with psychological issues which need to be addressed, while others may be linked to bad physical habits which can be corrected with physical therapy or coaching with a speech-language pathologist. Trauma to the mouth and throat can also lead to swallowing disorders, as seen in victims recovering from choking who have difficulty swallowing.
Treatment options for swallowing disorders vary, depending on the cause and severity. A special diet may be used to make it easier to swallow, and patients are commonly given physical therapy to increase comfort and teach them how to swallow again. Surgery can also be an option in some situations, and patients may benefit from the use of medications to manage the underlying cause of the disorder, such as drugs to manage acid reflux. In some cases, patients make a full recovery, while in other cases, only management of swallowing disorders may be available.