Dysphagia is the medical term for the symptom of difficulty in swallowing. Although classified under “symptoms and signs” in ICD-10, the term is sometimes used as a condition in its own right. People with dysphagia are sometimes unaware of having it.
It may be a sensation that suggests difficulty in the passage of solids or liquids from the mouth to the stomach, a lack of pharyngeal sensation or various other inadequacies of the swallowing mechanism. Dysphagia is distinguished from other symptoms including odynophagia, which is defined as painful swallowing, and globus, which is the sensation of a lump in the throat. A person can have dysphagia without odynophagia (dysfunction without pain), odynophagia without dysphagia (pain without dysfunction) or both together. A psychogenic dysphagia is known as phagophobia.
Signs and symptoms
Some patients have limited awareness of their dysphagia, so lack of the symptom does not exclude an underlying disease. When dysphagia goes undiagnosed or untreated, patients are at a high risk of pulmonary aspiration and subsequent aspiration pneumonia secondary to food or liquids going the wrong way into the lungs. Some people present with “silent aspiration” and do not cough or show outward signs of aspiration. Undiagnosed dysphagia can also result in dehydration, malnutrition, and renal failure.
Some signs and symptoms of oropharyngeal dysphagia include difficulty controlling food in the mouth, inability to control food or saliva in the mouth, difficulty initiating a swallow, coughing, choking, frequent pneumonia, unexplained weight loss, gurgly or wet voice after swallowing, nasal regurgitation, and dysphagia (patient complaint of swallowing difficulty). When asked where the food is getting stuck, patients will often point to the cervical (neck) region as the site of the obstruction. The actual site of obstruction is always at or below the level at which the level of obstruction is perceived.
The most common symptom of esophageal dysphagia is the inability to swallow solid food, which the patient will describe as ‘becoming stuck’ or ‘held up’ before it either passes into the stomach or is regurgitated. Pain on swallowing or odynophagia is a distinctive symptom that can be highly indicative of carcinoma, although it also has numerous other causes that are not related to cancer.
Achalasia is a major exception to usual pattern of dysphagia in that swallowing of fluid tends to cause more difficulty than swallowing solids. In achalasia, there is idiopathic destruction of parasympathetic ganglia of the Auerbach’s (Myenteric) plexus of the entire esophagus, which results in functional narrowing of the lower esophagus, and peristaltic failure throughout its length.
Complications of dysphagia may include aspiration, pneumonia, dehydration, and weight loss.
Dysphagia is classified into the following major types:
Esophageal and obstructive dysphagia
Neuromuscular symptom complexes
Functional dysphagia is defined in some patients as having no organic cause for dysphagia that can be found.
Following table enumerates possible causes of dysphagia:
Difficulty with or inability to swallow may be caused or exacerbated by usage of opiate and/or opioid drugs.
There are many ways to treat dysphagia, such as swallowing therapy, dietary changes, feeding tubes, certain medications, and surgery. Treatment for dysphagia is managed by a group of specialists known as a multidisciplinary team. Members of the multidisciplinary team include: a speech language pathologist specializing in swallowing disorders (swallowing therapist), primary physician, gastroenterologist, nursing staff, respiratory therapist, dietitian, occupational therapist, physical therapist, pharmacist, and radiologist. The role of the members of the multidisciplinary team will differ depending on the type of swallowing disorder present. For example, the swallowing therapist will be directly involved in the treatment of a patient with oropharyngeal dysphagia, while a gastroenterologist will be directly involved in the treatment of an esophageal disorder.
The implementation of a treatment strategy should be based on a thorough evaluation by the multidisciplinary team. Treatment strategies will differ on a patient to patient basis and should be structured to meet the specific needs of each individual patient. Treatment strategies are chosen based on a number of different factors including diagnosis, prognosis, reaction to compensatory strategies, severity of dysphagia, cognitive status, respiratory function, caregiver support, and patient motivation and interest.
Oral vs. nonoral feeding
Adequate nutrition and hydration must be preserved at all times during dysphagia treatment. The overall goal of dysphagia therapy is to maintain, or return the patient to, oral feeding. However, this must be done while ensuring adequate nutrition and hydration and a safe swallow (no aspiration of food into the lungs). If oral feeding results in increased mealtimes and increased effort during the swallow, resulting in not enough food being ingested to maintain weight, a supplementary nonoral feeding method of nutrition may be needed. In addition, if the patient aspirates food or liquid into the lungs despite the use of compensatory strategies, and is therefore unsafe for oral feeding, nonoral feeding may be needed. Nonoral feeding includes receiving nutrition through a method that bypasses the oropharyngeal swallowing mechanism including a nasogastric tube, gastrostomy, or jejunostomy.
Compensatory Treatment Procedures – designed to change the flow of the food/liquids and eliminate symptoms, do not directly change the physiology of the swallow.
Food Consistency (Diet) Changes
Modifying Volume and Speed of Food Presentation
Technique to Improve Oral Sensory Awareness
Therapeutic Treatment Procedures – designed to change and/or improve the physiology of the swallow.
Oral and Pharyngeal Range-of-Motion Exercises
Bolus Control Exercises
Patients may need a combination of treatment procedures to maintain a safe and nutritionally adequate swallow. For example, postural strategies may be combined with swallowing maneuvers to allow the patient to swallow in a safe and efficient manner.
The most common interventions used for those with oropharyngeal dysphagia by speech language pathologists are texture modification of foods, thickening fluids and positioning changes during swallowing. The effectiveness of modifying food and fluid in preventing aspiration pneumonia has been questioned and these can be associated with poorer nutrition, hydration and quality of life. Also, there has been considerable variability in national approaches to describing different degrees of thickened fluids and food textures. However, in 2015, the International Dysphagia Diet Standardisation Initiative (IDDSI) group produced an agreed IDDSI framework consisting of a continuum of 8 levels (0-7), where drinks are measured from Levels 0 – 4, while foods are measured from Levels 3 – 7. It is likely that this initiative, which has widespread support among dysphagia practitioners, will improve communication with carers and will lead to greater standardisation of modified diets
Swallowing disorders can occur in all age groups, resulting from congenital abnormalities, structural damage, and/or medical conditions. Swallowing problems are a common complaint among older individuals, and the incidence of dysphagia is higher in the elderly, in patients who have had strokes, and in patients who are admitted to acute care hospitals or chronic care facilities. Dysphagia is a symptom of many different causes, which can usually be elicited through a careful history by the treating physician. A formal oropharyngeal dysphagia evaluation is performed by a medical speech pathologist or occupational therapist.
The word “dysphagia” is derived from the Greek dys meaning bad or disordered, and the root phag- meaning “eat”.