Dysphagia: symptoms and causes of this common condition

Written by: Mr Tony Jacob
Published: | Updated: 27/02/2019
Edited by: Top Doctors®

What is dysphagia? Dysphagia is a broad term that refers to swallowing difficulties and it is surprisingly common. Estimates suggest that one in five adults experience some symptoms of dysphagia, although most cases are not serious.

What causes dysphagia?

There is not one single cause for dysphagia. Swallowing is a complex action, so there are a number of reasons which can make it hard to swallow.

Typical dysphagia causes include:

  1. Due to obstruction – e.g. food bolus obstruction, cancerous growths
  2. Neurological causes e.g. secondary to a stroke
  3. Secondary to severe reflux
  4. Advancing years / age-related poor muscle coordination

What are the symptoms of dysphagia?

As the word implies, the main symptom is "difficulty swallowing".

There can be other associated symptoms that may point to a possible underlying cause. For example, an elderly patient with dysphagia who often regurgitates undigested food could have a condition called a pharyngeal pouch, which is treatable.

Learn more about pharyngeal pouches here!

If dysphagia is progressively getting worse, and with pain and weight loss, then this certainly needs further investigations by a specialist, as it can be a sign of cancer. To make an accurate diagnosis, it is important to be aware of the various associations and make the necessary investigations.

The red flags and dysphagia symptoms to watch out for are:

  1. Progressive or worsening dysphagia
  2. Weight loss
  3. Hoarseness
  4. Pain - especially one-sided pain when swallowing
  5. A history of smoking and drinking alcohol

How is the underlying cause of dysphagia diagnosed?

A detailed history is often helpful in uncovering the underlying cause of the dysphagia. Most patients require an examination with a special flexible camera that can look at the top of the gullet. Special X-rays and scans may then be necessary.

There are a few patients who may require a more detailed endoscopy procedure, as a day case in hospital. The treatment then varies depending on the diagnosis.

By Mr Tony Jacob
Otolaryngology / ENT

Mr Tony Jacob is a distinguished consultant ENT surgeon based in London, specialising in paediatric otolaryngology, thyroid gland surgery, salivary gland disease and throat cancer. He has gained paediatric experience from renowned sites Great Ormond Street Hospital for sick children, and the Paediatric ENT unit at St Thomas' Hospital.

In addition to his vast experience working in most of London's teaching hospitals, and clinical experience gained in North America, Mr Jacob has published many peer reviewed papers and has been involved in teaching and training junior doctors.

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