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What Causes Dysphagia?

There are many medical conditions that can impact swallowing, for this reason the cause of dysphagia is difficult to assess. However, specialists have been able to categorize dysphagia into 2 types, Esophageal and Oropharyngeal.

Esophageal dysphagia occurs when an individual feels like food is sticking or caught in the base of the throat or chest. There are several conditions, which cause esophageal dysphagia:

  • Achalasia happens when the esophageal muscle doesn’t function allowing food to come back up the stomach into the esophagus. A patient may also have weak esophagus muscles, which grow weaker in time.
  • Esophageal stricture occurs when an individual has a narrowed esophagus, which can trap large pieces of food. The condition can produce tumors and scar tissue caused by GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease).
  • Esophageal ring. An area of the lower esophagus, which thins out over time causing difficulty in swallowing.
  • Esophageal tumors. Tumors in the esophagus will cause dysphagia.
  • GERD. Stomach acid, which flows back up into the esophagus, can cause damage to the esophagus leading to spasms, difficulty swallowing or narrowing of the esophagus.
  • Scleroderma. Patients with condition have scar-like tissue, which causes the stiffening and hardening of tissue in the body. The result can weaken the lower esophageal sphincter, which will allow stomach acids up in to the esophagus.

With Oropharyngeal Dysphagia, patients will experience difficulty swallowing almost immediately. The conditions causing the difficulty in swallowing often have to do with the muscles involved in chewing and pushing food to the back of the throat. If the muscles protecting the larynx and voice box are not functioning, the individual may swallow food and liquids through their voice box. This will cause a person’s voice to become husky and, in some patients, trigger a pneumonia called aspiration pneumonia. Some patients will report that choking or difficulty swallowing feels like it occurs at the back of the throat.

Dysphagia symptoms include:

  • Unable to swallow
  • Coughing or gagging when swallowing
  • Being hoarse
  • Regurgitating food
  • Have heartburn or acid reflux
  • Losing weight suddenly
  • Drooling
  • Feeling like you have food stuck in your throat or chest
  • Pain when trying to swallow

Dysphagia Specialists at UT Health Austin

The first thing your Dysphagia specialist will do is diagnose you as having esophageal or oropharyngeal dysphagia. They will ask you for your medical history and review with the care team prior to your visits. Depending on your diagnosis your doctor may perform a number of screenings or procedures including neurologic examination, Barium swallow test or endoscopy.

Dysphagia Treatment

Treatment for dysphagia will depend greatly on the diagnosis. There are several options for dilating a narrowed esophagus using a balloon or stents to make swallowing possible; medications to reduce acid reflux can also help; surgery or BOTOX injections to help relax the esophageal muscles.

Care Team Approach

We have assembled a team of experts that includes gastroenterologists, surgeons, associate providers, imaging experts, dietitians, and social workers. This team enables us to provide the right care for the right patient at the right time. For some patients, nonsurgical interventions such as lifestyle modifications and medications can help improve symptoms of reflux, while surgery may be the best course of action for others. Whatever your needs, our team is here to listen and work with you to develop a treatment plan that is right for you.