A member of your health care team will likely ask you for a description and history of your swallowing difficulties, perform a physical exam, and use various tests to find the cause of your swallowing problem.
Tests can include:
X-ray with a contrast material, called a barium X-ray. You drink a barium solution that coats the esophagus, making it easier to see on X-rays. A healthcare team can then see changes in the shape of the esophagus and can check the muscular activity.
You also may be asked to swallow solid food or a pill coated with barium. This allows the healthcare team to watch the muscles in the throat during swallowing or to look for blockages in the esophagus that the liquid barium solution might not show.
- Dynamic swallowing study. This study involves swallowing barium-coated foods of different consistencies. It provides an image of these foods as they travel down the throat. The images might show problems in the coordination of the mouth and throat muscles during swallowing. The images also can show if food is going into the breathing tube.
- Endoscopy. Endoscopy involves passing a thin, flexible lighted instrument, called an endoscope, down the throat. This allows your healthcare team to see your esophagus. Tissue samples, called biopsies, may be collected. The samples are studied to look for inflammation, eosinophilic esophagitis, narrowing or a tumor.
- Fiber-optic endoscopic evaluation of swallowing (FEES). During a FEES study, a healthcare professional examines the throat with an endoscope during swallowing.
- Esophageal muscle test, called manometry. In manometry (muh-NOM-uh-tree), a small tube is inserted into the esophagus and connected to a pressure recorder to measure the muscle contractions of the esophagus during swallowing.
- Imaging scans. These can include a CT scan, which combines a series of X-ray views and computer processing to create cross-sectional images of the body's bones and soft tissues, or an MRI scan, which uses a magnetic field and radio waves to create detailed images of organs and tissues.
Hi, Addie. I'm Carrie. I'm a speech pathologist. I'm going to be helping out with the evaluation today. We're going to be doing a type of swallowing evaluation where we put a camera in your nose. We give you different consistencies of food items to swallow and watch you swallow those. This is the camera we're going to use. It goes in your nose about this far, just a little bit past that white line. There's not much space between your nose and your throat, so it doesn't have to go in very far. We're not in there very long. Just long enough to take a look around at the anatomy, give you a couple of things to eat and drink, watch you swallow those and then we come out, okay. So the different items we're going to be swallowing. We'd like to do an assortment of consistencies, so we do a thin liquid, a puree, and then a solid consistency. I put a little green food coloring in the liquid and the puree that just allows us to see it better when the cameras in place. Okay.
Assistant: Some slow deep breaths.
Carrie: That's the absolute worst part right there.
Assistant: Good job.
Proceduralist: Can you see?
Assistant: Can you see on the TV?
Carrie: Only if you want.
Proceduralist: We can show you afterwards too.
Carrie: Ready for me?
Assistant: Take a couple sips of juice.
Carrie: Go ahead and take a couple more for me. Good.
Assistant: Some applesauce.
Carrie: Your other hand. Go ahead and take a bite of one of those. And one more. You can move your head a little bit. All right. That's it.
Proceduralist: Are you done?
Carrie: I'm done.
Proceduralist: On the way out. Perfect.
Assistant: You did it! Good job.
Treatment for dysphagia depends on the type or cause of your swallowing disorder.
For oropharyngeal dysphagia, you may be referred to a speech or swallowing therapist. Therapy might include:
- Learning exercises. Certain exercises might help coordinate your swallowing muscles or restimulate the nerves that trigger the swallowing reflex.
- Learning swallowing techniques. You also might learn ways to place food in your mouth or position your body and head to help you swallow. Exercises and new swallowing techniques might help if your dysphagia is caused by neurological problems such as Alzheimer's disease or Parkinson's disease.
Treatment approaches for esophageal dysphagia might include:
- Esophageal dilation. Dilation involves placing an endoscope into the esophagus and inflating an attached balloon to stretch it. This treatment is used for achalasia, esophageal stricture, motility disorders, or an irregular ring of tissue at the junction of the esophagus and stomach, known as Schatzki ring. Long, flexible tubes of varying diameter also may be inserted through the mouth into the esophagus to treat strictures and rings.
- Surgery. For an esophageal tumor, achalasia or pharyngoesophageal diverticulum, you might need surgery to clear your esophageal path.
Medicines. Difficulty swallowing caused by GERD can be treated with prescription medicines to reduce stomach acid. You might need to take these medicines for a long time.
Corticosteroids might be recommended for eosinophilic esophagitis. For esophageal spasm, smooth muscle relaxants might help.
- Diet. You may be prescribed a special diet to help with your symptoms depending on the cause of the dysphagia. If you have eosinophilic esophagitis, diet might be used as treatment.
If difficulty swallowing prevents you from eating and drinking enough and treatment doesn't allow you to swallow safely, a feeding tube may be recommended. A feeding tube provides nutrients without the need to swallow.
Surgery might be needed to relieve swallowing problems caused by throat narrowing or blockages. Blockages include bony outgrowths, vocal cord paralysis, pharyngoesophageal diverticula, GERD and achalasia. Surgery also can treat esophageal cancer. Speech and swallowing therapy is usually helpful after surgery.
The type of surgical treatment depends on the cause of dysphagia. Some examples are:
- Laparoscopic Heller myotomy. This involves cutting the muscle at the lower end of the esophagus, called the esophageal sphincter. In people who have achalasia, the esophageal sphincter fails to open and release food into the stomach. Heller myotomy helps correct this problem.
- Peroral endoscopic myotomy (POEM). The POEM procedure involves creating an incision in the inside lining of the esophagus to treat achalasia. Then, as in a Heller myotomy, the surgeon or gastroenterologist cuts the muscle at the lower end of the esophageal sphincter.
- Stent placement. A metal or plastic tube called a stent may be used to prop open a narrowed or blocked esophagus. Some stents are permanent, such as those for people with esophageal cancer, while others are removed later.
- OnabotulinumtoxinA (Botox). This can be injected into the muscle at the end of the esophagus, called the esophageal sphincter. This causes it to relax, improving swallowing in achalasia. Less invasive than surgery, this technique might require repeat injections. More study is needed.
Explore Mayo Clinic studies testing new treatments, interventions and tests as a means to prevent, detect, treat or manage this condition.
Lifestyle and home remedies
If you have trouble swallowing, be sure to see a healthcare professional. You also may try these approaches to help ease symptoms:
- Changing your eating habits. Try eating smaller, more frequent meals. Cut your food into smaller pieces, chew food thoroughly and eat more slowly. If you have difficulty swallowing liquids, there are products you can buy to thicken liquids.
- Trying foods with different textures to see if some cause you more trouble. Thin liquids, such as coffee and juice, are a problem for some people, and sticky foods, such as peanut butter or caramel, can make swallowing difficult. Avoid foods that cause you trouble.
- Limiting alcohol and caffeine. These can dry your mouth and throat, making swallowing more difficult.
Preparing for your appointment
See a healthcare professional if you're having problems swallowing. Depending on the suspected cause, you may be referred to an ear, nose and throat specialist; a doctor who specializes in treating digestive disorders, called a gastroenterologist; or a doctor who specializes in diseases of the nervous system, called a neurologist.
Here's some information to help you prepare for your appointment.
What you can do
When you make the appointment, ask if there's anything you need to do in advance, such as restrict your diet.
Make a list of:
- Your symptoms, including any that seem unrelated to the reason for which you scheduled the appointment, and when they began.
- Key personal information, including major stresses or recent life changes.
- All medicines, vitamins and supplements you take, including doses.
- Questions to ask your healthcare team.
For dysphagia, questions to ask include:
- What's the likeliest cause of my symptoms?
- What are other possible causes?
- What tests do I need?
- Is this condition temporary or long lasting?
- I have other health conditions. How can I best manage them together?
- Do I need to restrict my diet?
- Are there brochures or other printed material I can have? What websites do you recommend?
What to expect from your doctor
Your healthcare team is likely to ask you a number of questions, including:
- Have your symptoms been continuous or occasional?
- Does anything seem to improve your symptoms?
- What, if anything, appears to worsen your symptoms? For example, are certain foods harder to swallow than others?
- Do you have difficulty swallowing solids, liquids or both?
- Do you cough or gag when you try to swallow?
- Did you first have trouble swallowing solids and then develop difficulty swallowing liquids?
- Do you bring food back up after swallowing it?
- Do you ever vomit or bring up blood or black material?
- Have you lost weight?
What you can do in the meantime
Until your appointment, it might help to chew your food more slowly and thoroughly than usual. If you have heartburn or GERD, try eating smaller meals and not eating right before bedtime. Antacids that you can get without a prescription also might help temporarily.
Oct. 26, 2023