Dear Doctor: Why do the elderly often have a hard time swallowing, and sometimes experience a feeling that food is stuck in their throats? I heard there’s a procedure to stretch the throat. Does it help?
Dear Reader: The condition you’re asking about is known as dysphagia, which refers to difficulty in swallowing. Patients may have trouble starting a swallow, or problems with the esophagus, which is the muscular tube that connects the throat with the stomach.
The origins of the disorder fall into several basic categories. There are neurological causes, such as stroke, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, dementia and head injury. Certain muscular conditions can affect the proper functioning of the esophagus. So does obstruction, which can result from a narrowing of the esophagus, or from inflammation. These can be caused by head and neck cancers, radiation therapy, tuberculosis and chronic acid reflux.
Although dysphagia can affect people of all ages, you’re correct that it’s seen more often in older adults. This is commonly due to age-related changes in the body, such as loss of muscle tone, mass and strength, and changes to nerve function. Still, dysphagia is not considered to be a normal sign of aging.
Understanding dysphagia starts with the mechanics of swallowing. We tend to think of it as the “gulp” that empties the mouth. But that’s just the first step of a complex process. A successful swallow moves the contents of your mouth through the throat, and all the way down to the stomach. This happens when a ring of muscles known as the upper esophageal sphincter and located at the lower end of the throat, open. Next, coordinated contractions along the length of the esophagus send the food to a second ring of muscles known as the lower esophageal sphincter. This leads to the stomach. At the same time, muscles and specialized structures within the throat prevent anything from getting into the nose, voice box and windpipe.
Symptoms of dysphagia can include pain while swallowing, struggling or being unable to swallow, feeling as though food is stuck in the esophagus, coughing or gagging when trying to swallow, regurgitation or frequent heartburn. Some people may experience drooling or develop a hoarse voice. Diagnosis of the condition includes a physical exam and any of a variety of tests that may include X-rays, muscle tests and swallowing studies.
Treatment depends on the specific cause of the condition. Patients may be asked to change their diet, use certain exercises and techniques that help with swallowing coordination, or manage acid reflux with medication.
The procedure you asked about, known as esophageal dilation, is useful when dysphagia results from a narrowing of the esophagus. It involves the use of an endoscope and either plastic dilators or a special balloon to slowly and gradually stretch the esophagus. Complications, which are rare, include bleeding and tears or holes in the esophagus. In most cases, the patient is able to resume normal eating and drinking the following day.
(Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org, or write: Ask the Doctors, c/o UCLA Health Sciences Media Relations, 10880 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1450, Los Angeles, CA, 90024. Owing to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.)