What Is Dysphagia, and How Does It Relate to GERD?

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About Dysphagia

Patients suffering from dysphagia can have mild to severe difficulty swallowing food and beverages. Even drinks and slippery foods, like yogurt and applesauce, become difficult to swallow, as the muscles in the upper throat have trouble contracting sufficiently to squeeze down the food. Patients may even have trouble swallowing their own saliva, which can make life very uncomfortable.

This condition is by no means unique or specific to GERD and heartburn. There are many causes of the condition, including esophageal problems, scleroderma, radiation used for cancer treatments or neurological disorders. Dysphagia is very common among the elderly, particularly those in convalescent homes, and is sometimes seen in children with cleft palate, nervous system disorders or developmental problems.

Dysphagia and Digestive Problems

Digestive problems, such as GERD, heartburn and esophageal disorders, prompt dysphagia, sometimes at the very outset of the condition. If you’ve never experienced heartburn before, dysphagia might be one of your first symptoms.

This condition doesn’t go unnoticed. In other words, you’ll know it when you get it. It’s not always gradual either, as you can be fine one morning and wake up with trouble swallowing the next.

The outset of heartburn and GERD often start with increased belching, stomach acid traveling back up the esophagus and swallowing difficulty. If you have these symptoms altogether, you might have contracted a digestive problem.

What Dysphagia Feels Like

The feeling of not being able to swallow is a troubling one. If you don’t know what you have, you have no idea how to fix it or how you should react. This alone might be enough to make you want to visit a doctor.

So what does it feel like to have this condition? Let’s start with how it feels when drinking plain water. As the water reaches the back of your throat and you tighten your muscles to swallow it, you’ll notice that your muscles are already tight. It feels like they cannot relax, and there’s barely enough room to allow the liquid down your throat. This is the same sort of feeling you get when you have a really bad sore throat, but your throat might not be sore, just tight and locked up, as it were.

Now let’s talk about how it feels with food going down. As you try to swallow your food, you’ll notice you have even less room to swallow than with the water. The food, no matter how small of a bite and well-chewed it is, will probably scratch your throat on the way down, as the muscles have not relaxed enough to make an adequate entry. You might end up clenching your jaw a little bit as you brace for the pain it will likely cause.

How It Is Treated

What is dysphagia treatment? When accompanied with heartburn or GERD, dysphagia may not last more than a few weeks before it gives way to worsened heartburn conditions. It is sometimes just a precursor to these conditions and not a sign of lifelong symptoms.

If it persists, however, you can opt for medical examinations, such as X-rays or esophagoscopy, where doctors can evaluate whether they can open up the passageway in some manner to enable normal swallowing again.


University of Maryland Medical Center: Dysphagia

WebMD: GERD Causes, Symptoms and Treatments

My own experience with dysphagia and heartburn