Diagnosing Dysphagia

By Cascio, Lynne | Nutrition Health Review, Summer 1992 | Go to article overview
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Diagnosing Dysphagia

Cascio, Lynne, Nutrition Health Review

Difficulty in Swallowing Can Be a Matter of Changing Eating Habits or Cause for Serious Concern

At the age of 35, Susan tells her physician that she occasionally has problems swallowing solid food. It has been a problem for years, she says.

"It feels like pieces of food are getting stuck in my throat. It doesn't hurt, but it's really uncomfortable," she complains.

John, who's 65, also complains of trouble swallowing. In his case, it happens when he drinks and when he eats and it has become worse in recent months.

"It started about three months ago while I was eating a piece of steak. It's now so bad that I can't swallow anything unless I cut it into little pieces and chew it thoroughly."

Both of these patients are experiencing dysphagia. However, each person's history may lead to an entirely different diagnosis, ranging from a mechanical obstruction in the esophagus to a muscle disorder or cancer.

Dysphagia is a medical condition in which food does not move smoothly into the stomach. Those afflicted report the feeling of food getting "stuck" in the throat or behind the breast bone.

Physicians agree that dysphagia is usually caused by some form of organic lesion in the esophagus.

Taking a complete patient history is the best way to make a correct diagnosis. A physician who asks the right questions will soon discover with which kind of lesion he or she is dealing.

The type of food that causes the problem is very telling in diagnosis. A person who has difficulty swallowing only solids almost always has a mechanical obstruction. Someone who cannot swallow solids or liquids without difficulty is likely to suffer from a motility or neuromuscular problem, which would involve the neural supply or the smooth muscles of the esophagus.

A liquids-only difficulty probably indicates a lesion in the canal between the mouth and the esophagus (the oropharynx) or a (severe) dysmotility problem.

Whether the dysphagia happens only occasionally or becomes progressively worse is just as important. Someone who experiences difficulty swallowing solids only occasionally, perhaps once a year, probably has a Schatzki ring, that is, a narrowing of the lower part of the esophagus.

Someone whose dysphagia has become so severe that the person is unable to swallow any kind of solid food could have cancer, although a stricture -- an abnormal narrowing of the esophagus -- is probably more common. Unfortunately, strictures tend to be among the more difficult causes to diagnose.

The aforementioned diagnoses are the three most common mechanical lesions known to cause dysphagia -- peptic stricture, cancer, and the Schatzki mucosal ring.

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