What are the possible causes and treatment options for difficulty swallowing?

Symptom Database

Difficulty swallowing, also known as dysphagia, is a condition that can significantly impact a person’s quality of life. It can make eating and drinking a challenging and sometimes painful experience. In this article, we will explore the possible causes of difficulty swallowing and discuss various treatment options available.

Causes of Difficulty Swallowing

There are several potential causes for difficulty swallowing, ranging from temporary issues to more serious underlying conditions. Some common causes include:

  • Esophageal Stricture: This occurs when the esophagus narrows, making it difficult for food and liquids to pass through.
  • Achalasia: A condition where the muscles of the lower esophageal sphincter do not relax properly, causing difficulty in swallowing.
  • Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD): Chronic acid reflux can lead to inflammation and scarring of the esophagus, making swallowing challenging.
  • Stroke: Damage to the nerves or muscles involved in swallowing can occur after a stroke, leading to dysphagia.
  • Neurological Disorders: Conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, and muscular dystrophy can affect the muscles involved in swallowing.
  • Tumors: Both benign and malignant tumors in the throat or esophagus can obstruct the passage of food and liquids.

Treatment Options for Difficulty Swallowing

The treatment for difficulty swallowing depends on the underlying cause and severity of the condition. Here are some common treatment options:

1. Medications

In some cases, medications can help alleviate the symptoms of difficulty swallowing. For example, proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) can reduce stomach acid production and relieve symptoms associated with GERD. Muscle relaxants may also be prescribed to help relax the muscles involved in swallowing.

2. Dietary Modifications

Modifying the consistency of food and liquids can make swallowing easier. Thickening agents can be added to liquids to make them easier to swallow, while pureed or soft foods may be recommended to avoid choking or aspiration. It is important to consult with a healthcare professional or a speech-language pathologist for guidance on appropriate dietary modifications.

3. Swallowing Therapy

Swallowing therapy, also known as dysphagia therapy, is a specialized form of therapy that focuses on improving swallowing function. A speech-language pathologist can provide exercises and techniques to strengthen the muscles involved in swallowing and improve coordination. This therapy may involve practicing specific swallowing exercises and learning strategies to prevent choking or aspiration.

4. Dilation

If an esophageal stricture is causing difficulty swallowing, a procedure called dilation may be performed. During this procedure, a thin tube or balloon is inserted into the esophagus and inflated to stretch and widen the narrowed area, allowing for easier passage of food and liquids.

5. Surgical Intervention

In some cases, surgical intervention may be necessary to address the underlying cause of difficulty swallowing. For example, if a tumor is obstructing the esophagus, surgery may be required to remove it. Surgical options will vary depending on the specific condition and should be discussed with a healthcare professional.

When to Seek Medical Attention

While occasional difficulty swallowing may not be cause for concern, persistent or worsening symptoms should be evaluated by a healthcare professional. It is important to seek medical attention if you experience any of the following:

  • Unintentional weight loss
  • Chest pain or discomfort while swallowing
  • Coughing or choking during meals
  • Frequent heartburn or regurgitation
  • Difficulty swallowing both solids and liquids

These symptoms may indicate an underlying condition that requires medical intervention.


Difficulty swallowing can significantly impact a person’s ability to eat and drink comfortably. It is important to identify the underlying cause of dysphagia and seek appropriate treatment. Medications, dietary modifications, swallowing therapy, dilation, and surgical intervention are all potential treatment options depending on the specific cause and severity of the condition. If you are experiencing persistent difficulty swallowing, it is essential to consult with a healthcare professional for a proper diagnosis and personalized treatment plan.

Haroon Rashid, MD
Rate author
Urgent Care Center of Arlington, VA
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