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Classification and external resources
Specialty Gastroenterology
ICD-10 R13
ICD-9-CM 438.82, 787.2
DiseasesDB 17942
MedlinePlus 003115
eMedicine pmr/194
MeSH D003680

Dysphagia is the medical term for the symptom of difficulty in swallowing.[1][2] Although classified under "symptoms and signs" in ICD-10,[3] the term is sometimes used as a condition in its own right.[4][5][6] Sufferers are sometimes unaware of their dysphagia.[7][8]

The word is derived from the Greek dys meaning bad or disordered, and the root phag- meaning "eat". It may be a sensation that suggests difficulty in the passage of solids or liquids from the mouth to the stomach,[9] 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,[10] and globus, which is the sensation of a lump in the throat. A psychogenic dysphagia is known as phagophobia.


  • Signs and symptoms 1
  • Causes 2
    • Classification 2.1
  • Differential diagnosis 3
  • Diagnostic approach 4
  • Treatments 5
  • Epidemiology 6
  • See also 7
  • References 8
  • External links 9

Signs and symptoms

Some patients have limited awareness of their dysphagia, so lack of the symptom does not exclude an underlying disease.[11] 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).[11] 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.



Dysphagia is classified into three major types:

  1. Oropharyngeal dysphagia and
  2. Esophageal dysphagia.[12]
  3. 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:

Differential diagnosis

All causes of dysphagia are considered as differential diagnoses. Some common ones are:

Esophageal dysphagia is almost always caused by disease in or adjacent to the esophagus but occasionally the lesion is in the pharynx or stomach. In many of the pathological conditions causing dysphagia, the lumen becomes progressively narrowed and indistensible. Initially only fibrous solids cause difficulty but later the problem can extend to all solids and later even to liquids. Patients with difficulty swallowing may benefit from thickened fluids if the person is more comfortable with those liquids, although, so far, there are no scientific study that proves that those thickened liquids are beneficial.

Dysphagia may manifest as the result of autonomic nervous system pathologies including stroke[13] and ALS,[14] or due to rapid iatrogenic correction of an electrolyte imbalance.[15]

Diagnostic approach

The gold-standard for diagnosing oropharyngeal dysphagia in countries of the Commonwealth are via a modified barium swallow study or videofluoroscopic swallow study (fluoroscopy). This is a lateral video (and AP in some cases) X-ray that provides objective information on bolus transport, safest consistency of bolus (different consistencies including honey, nectar, thin, pudding, puree, regular), and possible head positioning and/or maneuvers that may facilitate swallow function depending on each individual's anatomy and physiology. In Zenker's diverticulum, barium meal first fills the pouch, then overflows from top. In achalasia, it shows "bird-beak" tapering of distal esophagus. In esophageal cancer, it shows a characteristic filling defect ("Rat-tail" deformity). In leiomyoma, there is smooth filling defect. Reflux can be demonstrated in fluorscopy. In strictures, meal is initially arrested above stricture, then gradually trickles down.

  • Esophagoscopy and laryngoscopy can give direct view of lumens.
  • Chest radiograph may show air-fluid level in mediastinum. Pott's disease and calcified aneurysms of aorta can be easily diagnosed.
  • Esophageal motility study is useful in cases of achalasia and diffuse esophageal spasms.
  • Exfoliative cytology can be performed on esophageal lavage obtained by esophagoscopy. It can detect malignant cells in early stage.
  • Ultrasonography and CT scan are not very useful in finding cause of dysphagia; but can detect masses in mediastinum and aortic aneurysms.
  • FEES (Fibreoptic endoscopic evaluation of swallowing), sometimes with sensory evaluation, is done usually by a Medical Speech Pathologist or Deglutologist. This procedure involves the patient eating different consistencies as above.
  • Swallowing sounds and vibrations could be potentially used for dysphagia screening, but these approaches are in the early research stages.[16]


Treating dysphagia depends on the type and severity of a patient's swallowing difficulty. For difficulties in the mouth and throat areas, treatments are generally focused on swallowing therapy, including exercises, and dietary changes. For problems in the esophagus, treatment options may include surgery or medicine. Feeding tubes are also options for treating dysphagia, including nasogastric or endoscopic tubes.[17][18]


Swallowing disorders can occur in all age groups, resulting from congenital abnormalities, structural damage, and/or medical conditions.[11] Swallowing problems are a common complaint among older individuals, and the incidence of dysphagia is higher in the elderly,[19][20] in patients who have had strokes,[21] 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.[22]

See also


  1. ^ Smithard DG, Smeeton NC, Wolfe CD (2007). "Long-term outcome after stroke: does dysphagia matter?". Age Ageing 36 (1): 90–4.  
  2. ^ Brady A (2008). "Managing the patient with dysphagia". Home Healthc Nurse 26 (1): 41–6; quiz 47–8.  
  3. ^ "ICD-10:". Retrieved 2008-02-23. 
  4. ^ Boczko F (2006). "Patients' awareness of symptoms of dysphagia". J Am Med Dir Assoc 7 (9): 587–90.  
  5. ^ "Dysphagia".  
  6. ^ "Swallowing Disorders - Symptoms of Dysphagia".  
  7. ^ Parker C, Power M, Hamdy S, Bowen A, Tyrrell P, Thompson DG (2004). "Awareness of dysphagia by patients following stroke predicts swallowing performance". Dysphagia 19 (1): 28–35.  
  8. ^ Rosenvinge SK, Starke ID (2005). "Improving care for patients with dysphagia".  
  9. ^ Sleisenger, Marvin H.; Feldman, Mark; Friedman, Lawrence M. (2002). Sleisenger & Fordtran's Gastrointestinal & Liver Disease, 7th edition. Philadelphia, PA: W.B. Saunders Company. Chapter 6, p. 63.  
  10. ^ "Dysphagia".  
  11. ^ a b c Logemann, Jeri A. (1998). Evaluation and treatment of swallowing disorders. Austin, Tex: Pro-Ed.  
  12. ^ Spieker MR (June 2000). "Evaluating dysphagia". Am Fam Physician 61 (12): 3639–48.  
  13. ^ "Validation of a dysphagia screening tool in acute stroke patients." 19 (4). Jul 2010. pp. 357–64.  
  14. ^ "A case of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis presented as oropharyngeal Dysphagia." 16 (3). Jul 2010. pp. 319–22.  
  15. ^ "Central pontine and extrapontine myelinolysis: the osmotic demyelination syndromes.". 75 Suppl 3. Sep 2004. pp. iii22–8.  
  16. ^ J. M. Dudik, J. L. Coyle, E. Sejdić, “Dysphagia screening: Contributions of cervical auscultation signals and modern signal processing techniques,” IEEE Transactions on Human-Machine Systems, vol. 45, no. 4, pp. 465-477, August 2015.
  17. ^ "Dysphagia (Swallowing Problems) Treatment". National Health Service, UK. Retrieved July 27, 2014. 
  18. ^ "How is Dysphagia Treated?". National Institutes of Health, US. Retrieved July 27, 2014. 
  19. ^ Shamburek RD, Farrar JT (1990). "Disorders of the digestive system in the elderly".  
  20. ^ "When the Meal Won't Go Down". New York Times. April 21, 2010. Retrieved July 27, 2014. 
  21. ^ Martino R, Foley N, Bhogal S, Diamant N, Speechley M, Teasell R (2005). "Dysphagia after stroke: incidence, diagnosis, and pulmonary complications". Stroke 36 (12): 2756–63.  
  22. ^ Ingelfinger FJ, Kramer P, Soutter L, Schatzki R (1959). "Panel discussion on diseases of the esophagus". Am. J. Gastroenterol. 31 (2): 117–31.  

External links

  • National Foundation of Swallowing Disorders
  • Dysphagia at DMOZ
  • Overview of Feeding Problems in Children
  • Dysphagia Guideline at the World Gastroenterology Organisation (WGO)
  • Speech Language Pathology Scope of Practice
  • American Speech-Language-Hearing Association
  • Swallowing and Feeding
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