Can’t Swallow That?

Difficulty swallowing, known medically as “dysphagia”, is a very common complaint. In fact, up to nearly a quarter of patients seen in primary care settings will suffer from this problem. Dysphagia is definitely more common in the older population, whether they are in nursing homes or living independently.

What causes dysphagia? The most common cause depends on the age. In small kids, there may be structural problems present from birth that may need surgical correction. In adults, however, the cause is often something that can be fixed more simply, with medications and/or behavior changes.

Smoking, excess alcohol, and obesity all tend to increase stomach acid refluxing back up into the esophagus, which can cause pain or difficulty in swallowing. Reflux, also known as GERD (Gastro Esophageal Reflux Disease) is a very common cause of dysphagia that is seen in otherwise healthy people. Quitting smoking, stopping excess alcohol and weight loss can all improve symptoms, as well as taking medications that reduce acid production.

Medications such as NSAIDS (like ibuprofen), potassium supplements, antibiotics and osteoporosis medications can all cause problems with swallowing, so both diagnosis and treatment of dysphagia in this case may involve stopping prescription medications.

  • Let me take this opportunity to caution against “DRY SWALLOWING” pills. I cringe when I see people grab an ibuprofen and swallow it without a drink. Every time you take a pill or capsule, swallow it along with at least a half glass of liquid. Dry swallowing can essentially “scrape” or chemically irritate the lining of your esophagus. And please, let gravity help you get that pill all the way to your stomach- don’t lie down for at least five or ten minutes after you take medications.

Less commonly, the more serious causes of dysphagia are to blame, including cancers, strokes, neurologic disorders such as Parkinson’s Disease, advanced infections, or scarring from prior trauma or radiation.

BOTTOM LINE: Don’t ignore trouble swallowing, especially if it persists or is getting worse. Schedule an appointment with your family doctor!

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