Are swallowing problems a sign of gullet cancer?

Written by: Dr Michael Glynn
Published: | Updated: 17/04/2023
Edited by: Cal Murphy

The ability to swallow is something we take for granted right up until the moment that we lose it. Difficulty swallowing, or dysphagia, is an unpleasant symptom of a number of different things, some more serious than others. We turned to Dr Michael Glynn, a top gastroenterologist who sees a lot of patients with dysphagia, to answer our questions about swallowing problems.

What is dysphagia?

Dysphagia is the medical term used to describe difficulty in swallowing. (Odynophagia is the word for pain or discomfort on swallowing). In this regard, “difficulty” means that the food seems to hold up as it goes down. It may be slight and intermittent, or progressively severe.


Dysphagia that gets progressively worse over a few weeks or is accompanied by weight loss is always more worrying. If there is major hold-up of food or liquids, they may be regurgitated, which the patient can usually report as a different symptom from vomiting. If the blockage is high in the gullet, there may be coughing and choking when attempting to swallow. When dysphagia is due to neurological problems with the initiation of swallowing, liquids may regurgitate back up the nose.


What are the main causes of dysphagia and who is affected?

There are many causes of dysphagia, including the following:

  • Oesophageal cancer – this is the most worrying cause. Cancer of the oesophagus (gullet) is unusual under the age of 40. If the dysphagia is persistent over a few weeks or gets progressively worse, an urgent upper GI endoscopy is needed to rule out the possibility of cancer.
  • Acid reflux – issues related to acid reflux tend to be less serious, but can still cause intermittent dysphagia. Acid reflux is where stomach acid comes up into the lower oesophagus because the ring of muscle (sphincter) that separates the gullet from the stomach is not very efficient.
  • Benign stricture – this usually occurs after a long period of reflux, although the reflux itself may have not caused much trouble. The symptoms tend to progress more slowly than those of cancer and weight loss is less marked. 
  • Achalasia – failure of the sphincter at the lower end of the gullet to open when it should. This means that food cannot enter the stomach, causing a backup in the oesophagus, which, in turn, leads to difficulty swallowing. This is quite a rare cause of dysphagia, although it has often been present for a long time before diagnosis.
  • Stress – a feeling of swallowing difficulty high in the throat (known as globus) often has no definable cause and can be a symptom of stress.


When should I see a doctor about it?

Due to the concern surrounding cancer, all patients who experience dysphagia for more than a short period (e.g. 7-10 days) should be referred to a specialist.

By Dr Michael Glynn

Dr Michael Glynn is a highly experienced consultant gastroenterologist/hepatologist based in London. He specialises in gastroenterology, acid reflux, liver diseasehepatology, gastroscopyGI endoscopyclinical nutrition, cirrhosis, performing colonoscopies, and abdominal pain. His private practice is based at BMI London Independent Hospital.

Dr Glynn, who successfully completed a MB BChir (1977), an MA (1978), and an MD (1995) at Cambridge University, has conducted an extensive amount of research in relation to protein metabolism in patients on intravenous feeding. He has held a number of high profile positions within his field, including being National Clinical Director for GI and Liver Diseases within NHS England. Alongside his practice, Dr Glynn is in demand as a medico-legal expert within the fields of general medicine,gastroenterology and hepatology and is dedicated to medical education, serving as Honorary Senior Lecturer at Queen Mary University of London. Dr Glynn has co-edited Hutchinson's Clinical Methods, the oldest continuously published general medical textbook, through a number of editions.

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