Swallowing is an important part of eating and drinking. A complex mechanism, it involves the coordination of both the skeletal and smooth muscles. Additionally, the autonomic nervous system helps to coordinate the different phases—oral, pharyngeal, and esophageal. If the process fails, food can become stuck in the throat, which can lead to choking. Various conditions can lead to dysphagia or difficulty swallowing.
Multiple sclerosis is a chronic disease that affects the brain and spinal cord. Potentially disabling, it occurs when there is damage to the outer covering of nerve cells. As a result, nerve signals slow or stop. Multiple sclerosis can cause symptoms such as lack of coordination, vision problems, extreme fatigue, and cognitive impairment. Often, delayed swallowing responses also develop, leading to difficulty swallowing; over time, the pharyngeal wall may also weaken. While there is no cure, managing multiple sclerosis is possible with proper treatment.
Parkinson’s disease is a neurodegenerative disorder of the nervous system. More specifically, it affects the nerve cells in the brain that produce dopamine—a chemical responsible for relaying messages that plan and coordinate movement. As a result, the condition often leads to motor symptoms such as tremors and rigidity. Over time, an individual may also lose control of the throat muscles, which can cause difficulty swallowing. Unfortunately, there is currently no cure for Parkinson’s. However, there are several ways to manage the disease, including medication and surgery.
Cerebral palsy is a group of disorders that affect body movement and coordination. The syndrome is related to a disruption in brain development and can lead to a variety of symptoms including stiff muscles, tremors, weak arms or legs, and lack of muscle coordination. In addition to movement problems, individuals may also experience difficulty swallowing—something that is more common among those with moderate to severe forms of the condition. There is no cure for this neurological disorder, at this time.
A stroke happens when the blood stops flowing to the brain due to a rupture or blockage. Brain cells deprived of oxygen and nutrients will begin to die within minutes. Prompt treatment is crucial for reducing the risk of permanent damage. Following a stroke, an individual may experience complications such as paralysis, memory loss, difficulty talking, and difficulty swallowing. Depending on the size of the stroke, the disabilities may be temporary or permanent.
Esophageal cancer occurs when a malignant tumor forms in the esophagus—the muscular tube that carries food into the stomach. In its early stages, there may not be any symptoms. As the tumor continues to grow, however, it can block the esophagus, which can lead to difficulty swallowing. Some other symptoms include weight loss, pain in the throat, painful swallowing, indigestion, and regurgitation. Treatment often involves chemotherapy and surgery.
Esophagitis causes inflammation of the esophagus. Some of the most common causes are infection, gastroesophageal reflux disease, allergies, and medications. Often, the esophagus narrows, leading to difficulty swallowing. Other symptoms include chest pain, painful swallowing, heartburn, food impaction, and acid regurgitation. If left untreated, esophagitis can lead to ulcers, bleeding, and chronic scarring.
A goiter is an abnormal enlargement of the thyroid gland—an organ at the base of the neck that manages hormone production. In developed countries, autoimmune disease is the main cause; hyperthyroidism also contributes to the condition. In addition to visible swelling, goiters can lead to coughing, hoarseness, and a tight feeling in the throat. As they grow bigger, they can put pressure on the esophagus and make swallowing difficult.
Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis
Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS is a progressive motor neuron disease. Over time, motor neurons in the brain and spinal cord degenerate, which leads to muscle weakness and atrophy. Eventually, individuals with ALS lose the ability to move their bodies at will. Unfortunately, there is currently no cure for ALS. Difficulty swallowing is often one of the first symptoms; some of the other signs include muscle cramps, muscle twitching, weakness in the hands and feet, and difficulty speaking.
Myasthenia gravis is a chronic neuromuscular disease that causes weakness in the skeletal muscles. The autoimmune condition occurs when the body interrupts normal communication between the nerve cells and muscles. Without proper transmission of nerve impulses, the muscles weaken over time. Some of the most common symptoms of myasthenia gravis include difficulty swallowing, facial paralysis, difficulty talking, hoarseness, fatigue, and drooping eyelids.
Tonsillitis refers to inflammation of the tonsils—a collection of lymphoid tissue at the back of the throat that normally helps prevent infection. Viruses are the most common cause, bacteria another. Depending on the severity, some people require a tonsillectomy. Common symptoms include difficulty swallowing, white patches on the tonsils, sore throat, fever, enlarged lymph nodes, bad breath, headache, and stiff neck.