Your body performs many physiological functions without you really paying attention to them. One example is swallowing. Chances are you’ve never really thought about what your body needs to do in order to swallow. Though it’s literally the lifeline that allows you to get the nutrients and calories you need to survive, swallowing is a bodily function often taken for granted—until you have trouble doing it.
The swallowing reflex is one of the first steps in the process of moving food through the digestive system. As many as 50 pairs of muscles and a countless number of nerves in the esophagus help get the job done. When something happens to one or more of the nerves or muscles involved in swallowing, you may have trouble getting food and/or drink to go down easily. Dysphagia is the term used to describe difficulty with swallowing. Symptoms of dysphagia can include:
- Being unable to swallow completely
- Feeling like there’s food stuck in your throat or chest
- Coughing or gagging when swallowing
- Having frequent heartburn
- Speaking with a hoarse voice
Dysphagia is more likely to occur in older adults than in younger people. It’s not uncommon to have problems with swallowing after a stroke or if you have a neuromuscular disorder such as Parkinson’s disease or Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS). But injury and illness are not the only causes of dysphagia. A recent study in the American Journal of Physiology—Endocrinology and Metabolism reports that certain muscle relaxants and anti-anxiety medications may increase the risk of dysphagia.
Treatment varies, depending on the reason you’re having trouble. In some cases, physical therapy can help you learn new ways to eat safely. In others, a medication change may be in order.
Dysphagia may be a tough pill to swallow—literally and figuratively. But if you’ve had symptoms of this disorder, it’ll be much harder to take this important physiological function for granted in the future!