Developing trouble with swallowing is a really concerning and frustrating situation. We all worry about serious things like cancer and consequently tend to often assume the worst when something like this occurs. Fortunately, the majority of swallowing problems do not have a serious cause and can be improved with medical and allied health care.
Swallowing is actually a really complicated skill, despite the fact that most of us can do it without thinking. It requires precise co-ordination of the muscles in the head, neck and chest along with the production of just the right amount of saliva to lubricate the process. Importantly, the body also needs to protect the airway while doing swallowing to prevent liquid or solid matter ending up in the lungs.
With such a complicated system it only takes a small change in the process for someone to experience difficulty swallowing. Some of the common causes of swallowing problems include:
- Nervous system disorders (Multiple Sclerosis / Motor Neurone disease).
- Oesophageal pouches, strictures and muscular problems.
- Tumours of the head, neck and oesophagus.
As you would expect, the main symptoms of trouble swallowing is the sense that swallowing is harder than it should be. It can take longer for food to go down than expected, take multiple swallows to pass or feel like it gets stuck. In some cases, food can go down the wrong way and enter the lungs and windpipe, leading to coughing or recurrent lung infections.
With such a complicated system it can be a challenge to get to the bottom of the problem. Initially the most important thing is to rule out serious causes such as cancer. This can be done in most cases with a combination of examination, scans and other tests.
The description of the problem will often provide clues as to the possible cause and a head and neck examination can further clarify the issues. In some instances, the patient may need to trial particular medications and interventions to see if these help identify and manage the problem.
There are additional Specialists with expertise in this area such as Gastroenterologists and Respiratory Physicians who can also play a role in the management of swallowing problems.
Solutions can vary. In serious cases such as cancers, surgery and other cancer specific treatments are needed.
In less serious problems the treatment can include medications, lifestyle advice and the involvement of a Speech Therapist.
Dr Morrissey can aid you in determining the cause of swallowing problems and help rule out concerning pathology. He will then guide you to the most appropriate interventions to address the problem.