Swallowing is a reflex we usually take for granted. It requires little thought, until something goes wrong and our ability to swallow properly is compromised. Swallowing difficulty – known as dysphagia – is the sensation of food getting stuck in your throat or chest. It usually occurs when the esophagus fails to function as it should.

The Swallowing Process

Most of us experience trouble swallowing on occasion. We’ve all experienced moments where food has “gone down the wrong pipe” or feels like it’s lodged in the sternum. This may occur when we eat our food too quickly or don’t chew it thoroughly, and is rarely cause for alarm. But in some individuals with chronic swallowing disorders, this occurs frequently.

When everything is working normally, when you swallow, the muscles in your throat and esophagus contract to move foods and liquids from the mouth to the stomach, where digestion occurs. This process can be disrupted when the muscles and nerves don’t work correctly, or when there is a blockage in the throat or esophagus. This results in food becoming stuck in the throat or chest, causing painful swallowing that may be accompanied by choking, gagging, regurgitation, drooling, hoarseness, chest pain, acid reflux, and sore throat.

Causes & Treatment

Disorders of the nervous system (e.g. multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease) or immune system can weaken the muscles of the throat and esophagus, preventing proper swallowing. Scleroderma, esophageal spasms, and injuries of the brain or spinal cord can also affect muscle control.

Blockages of the throat or esophagus may occur as a result of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), inflammation of the esophagus, diverticula, hiatal hernias, or tumors.

To determine the cause of your swallowing trouble, your doctor may order a barium swallow study or fluoroscopy. X-rays, laryngoscopy, and other tests can help pinpoint the source of the problem. Treatment will vary depending upon the cause. Medications, surgery, lifestyle changes, and swallowing exercises are all popular treatment methods. Severe cases might require use of a feeding tube.