What is Swallowing Difficulty?

Difficulty swallowing (dysphagia) means it takes more time and effort to move food or liquid from your mouth to your stomach. This condition may be associated with pain.

Occasional difficulty in swallowing usually occurs when you eat too fast or don’t chew your food well and is usually not a concern. But persistent dysphagia may indicate a serious disease requiring treatment.


Signs and symptoms associated with dysphagia may include:

  • Being unable to swallow.
  • Having pain when swallowing (odynophagia).
  • Having the sensation of food getting stuck in your throat or chest.
  • Having to cut food into smaller pieces because of trouble swallowing.
  • Frequent heartburn.
  • Coughing or gagging when swallowing.
  • Unexpected weight loss.


Dysphagia generally falls into one of the following categories:

Esophageal dysphagia

Esophageal dysphagia refers to the sensation of food sticking or getting hung up in the base of your throat or in your chest after you have started to swallow. Causes include:

Esophageal stricture. This is a narrowed esophagus which can trap large pieces of food. Tumors or scar tissue can cause narrowing of the esophagus.

Esophageal tumors. Esophageal tumors can lead to progressively worsening of swallowing.

Achalasia. This is a condition when your lower esophageal muscle (sphincter) does not relax completely to let food enter your stomach.

Foreign bodies. Sometimes food or another object can partially block your throat or esophagus.

GERD. Damage to esophageal tissues from stomach backing up into your esophagus can lead to spasm or scarring leading to difficulty swallowing.

Oropharyngeal dysphagia

Certain conditions can weaken your throat muscles making it difficult to swallow. You make choke, gag, or cough when you try to swallow. This may lead to pneumonia.

Causes of oropharyngeal dysphagia include:

Neurological disorders. Disorders like Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis can cause dysphagia.

Neurological damage. Conditions like stroke or brain or spinal cord injury may affect swallowing.

Cancer. Certain cancers and some cancer treatments such as radiation can cause difficulty swallowing.


Difficulty swallowing can lead to:

Aspiration pneumonia. If there is difficulty swallowing, food or liquid enter the airway leading to aspiration pneumonia.

Weight loss and malnutrition. Dysphagia can lead to inadequate nourishment and fluids lead to weight loss and malnutrition.


You can reduce your risk of occasional difficulty swallowing by eating slowly and chewing your food well. Early detection and treatment of GERD can help lower risk of developing dysphagia .