Dysphagia is a difficulty or derangement in normal swallowing, which can range from a minor sensation of something persisting in the throat, to coughing during feeding, to having to constantly spit out saliva.
Causes of swallowing problems
The exact incidence of dysphagia is unknown as it has so many different causes, such as:
- Neurological conditions (including stroke)
- Ageing Caustic (bleach) ingestion and strictures from acid reflux
- Head, neck, oesophageal and brain tumours
- After surgery – including convention surgery on the neck, skull base, brain and laser surgery to the throat
- Radiotherapy to the neck or brain
- Inflammatory/auto-immune disorders
How to diagnose dysphagia
Diagnosis is usually made on taking a medical history from a patient. Some patients may not be aware of swallowing problems, present with recurrent chest infections, through silently aspirating food and drink.
The severity of the dysphagia is assessed clinically but also through specialist tests such as X-Ray videos of the patient swallowing (videofluoroscopy) and direct observations of the patient swallowing with a trans-nasal flexible camera device (fibreoptic endoscopic evaluation of swallowing).
Dysphagia is usually managed by specialist multidisciplinary teams (MDTs). The aims are to gain sufficient nutrition, protect the airway and allow for the pleasures of taste and social aspects of eating.
Treatment of dysphagia
Management is through an MDT and depends very much on the cause. Where possible, the priority is to treat the underlying medical condition.
The patient could simply be advised to modify the consistency or types of food eaten. There are also exercises for strengthening, such as swallowing muscles and manoeuvres of the head and neck to make each swallow more safely.
Alternative feeding methods such as nasal or directly into the stomach feeding tubes, may be considered for the short or long term in more severe cases.
Surgery for swallowing difficulties
Surgical techniques for helping with the swallow mechanism again depend on the underlying cause, are varied and should only be offered by dysphagia specialists. These may include a tracheostomy to look after the airway, surgery on the muscles of swallowing or on the vocal cords, surgery on a pharyngeal pouch, diverting the airway to a hole in the neck and even removing the larynx.