Difficulty Swallowing? Here’s Why It Happens

    • Dysphagia can sometimes cause pain and make swallowing impossible.
    • Chronic dysphagia may be a sign of a serious medical condition.
    • Dysphagia is more common in older adults but can affect any age.

Dysphagia refers to the condition where it requires more effort to swallow food or liquid and move them to your stomach. Here’s to know about the condition:


  • Pain when swallowing
  • Inability to swallow
  • The feeling of having food stuck in your throat or chest or behind your breastbone
  • Drooling
  • Hoarse voice
  • Regurgitation
  • Frequent heartburn
  • Acid reflux
  • Unintentional weight loss
  • Coughing or gagging when swallowing

If you experience persistent difficulty in swallowing, unintentional weight loss, or vomiting, along with your dysphagia, see your doctor. Seek emergency help when you experience difficulty breathing or feel that food is lodged in your throat or chest.


The cause of dysphagia can sometimes be hard to identify. But the condition is usually caused by:

Esophageal dysphagia

Esophageal dysphagia is a term used to refer to the sensation of food getting lodged at the bottom of your throat or in your chest. Esophageal dysphagia usually results from:

  • Achalasia. This occurs when your lower esophageal muscle is too tense, restricting food from entering your stomach and causing food to back up into your throat.
  • Diffuse spasm. This condition affects the involuntary muscles in your lower esophagus’ walls and causes multiple high-pressure and erratic contractions of your esophagus after you swallow.
  • Esophageal stricture. A narrowed esophagus caused by tumors or scar tissues from GERD can trap large food pieces.
  • Esophageal tumors. Esophageal tumors can worsen swallowing difficulties.
  • Foreign bodies. Anything you ingest can temporarily block your esophagus or throat.
  • Esophageal ring. A slight narrowing in the lower esophagus can partially make swallowing difficult.
  • GERD. Spasm, scarring, or narrowing of your lower esophagus can also result from stomach acid backing up into your esophagus.
  • Eosinophilic esophagitis. An overgrowth of eosinophil cells in the esophagus can also cause difficulty swallowing. This may be related to a food allergy.
  • Scleroderma. Scar-like tissues can weaken your lower esophageal muscle and cause acid to back up into your esophagus, resulting in frequent heartburn.
  • Radiation therapy. This cancer treatment can result in inflammation and scarring of the esophagus.

Oropharyngeal dysphagia

When your throat muscles weaken, it can be difficult to move food from your mouth into your throat and esophagus, cause you to choke, gag or cough when you try to swallow, or cause a sensation of having food or fluids going down your windpipe or up your nose. Oropharyngeal dysphagia may result from:

  • Neurological disorders. Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, and muscular dystrophy can cause dysphagia.
  • Neurological damage. A stroke or injury in your brain or spinal cord can make swallowing difficult.
  • Pharyngoesophageal diverticulum (Zenker’s diverticulum). This small pouch is usually located above the esophagus and forms and collects food particles in your throat, leading to difficulty swallowing.
  • Cancer. Certain cancers and cancer treatments can make swallowing difficult.

Risk factors

  • Old age. The natural aging and wear and tear on the esophagus can cause a higher risk of certain conditions, like stroke or Parkinson’s disease, making swallowing difficult.
  • Certain health conditions. Certain neurological or nervous system disorders can cause difficulty swallowing.


Untreated dysphagia can lead to:

  • Dehydration, malnutrition, and weight loss
  • Aspiration pneumonia
  • Choking


Slow eating and chewing your food well can lower the risk of swallowing difficulties. Treating and detecting GERD early can also lower your risk of developing dysphagia associated with narrowing of the lower esophagus.

Source: Mayo Clinic