Swallowing Disorders Treatment in Atlanta, GA

Do you frequently experience discomfort or the feeling of taking more time and effort to swallow? You may have a Swallowing Disorder.

What are Swallowing Disorders?

A swallowing disorder is characterized by pain or difficulty with swallowing.
The pain associated with swallowing disorders feels different than a “sore throat” and more like a tight squeeze or burning sensation. The medical term for painful swallowing is “odynophagia”.
When one has difficulty swallowing, the term is “dysphagia” and it typically involves problems with coordinating a swallow or having food and liquid blocked by some sort of obstruction.

What Happens When We Swallow?

We hardly think about it and that’s one of the great things about swallowing but swallowing is actually a complex and very important function of our bodies.

Swallowing involves numerous nerves and muscles located in the mouth, throat, and food pipe (esophagus). A portion of swallowing requires an intentional action on your part (voluntary) but much of swallowing happens on its own, without you thinking about it (involuntary).

There are 3 Stages of Swallowing: 

1st Stage of Swallowing: The tongue pushes food or liquid into the throat.

2nd Stage of Swallowing: The epiglottis (a small flap that keeps food from entering your windpipe) folds over the larynx (where your vocal cords and windpipe are located) so the food continues down to your stomach and not your lungs.

3rd Stage of Swallowing: The esophagus contracts and relaxes to move the food and liquid down into the stomach and rest of the digestive system.

Issues or pain with any portion of the swallowing process may indicate a swallowing disorder.

What Causes Swallowing Disorders?

There are various causes of swallowing disorders. They include: 

  • Acid reflux: Stomach acid that is meant to stay in the stomach can sometimes come up into the esophagus where it can cause inflammation and swelling. If this happens too frequently it can cause something called esophagitis and even lead to scar tissue that can block food and liquids from passing.
  • Spasms of the esophagus: The esophagus is made up of circular muscles that constrict and relax in order to move food down to the stomach. Spasms of these muscles can cause pain and difficulty with swallowing. Inflammation, anxiety, and neuromuscular disorders can all contribute to esophageal spasms.
  • Ulcers caused by viruses or medications: Certain viral infections can cause ulcers and inflammation in the esophagus or mouth making the swallowing process painful or difficult. Medications can also irritate the esophagus especially if the pill gets stuck and it causes an ulcer to develop.
  • Neurological disorders: Since swallowing involves coordination between nerves and muscles, certain conditions such as multiple sclerosis (MS), muscular dystrophy, Parkinson’s disease, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) can interfere with the swallowing process. Sudden damage to the nervous system, like a stroke or traumatic brain injury can also affect the body’s ability to swallow.
  • Abnormal growths: Masses or tumors, cancerous or not, can cause obstruction in the throat and esophagus, making swallowing difficult.
  • Age: As we age the muscles involved in swallowing get weaker and this can lead to difficulty with the swallowing process.

How is a Swallowing Disorder Identified?

Our specialists at Northeast Atlanta ENT will conduct a thorough history of your symptoms and perform a physical exam if you are experiencing any difficulty or pain with swallowing. If further testing is determined to be necessary, some of the following may be ordered or scheduled:

  • Endoscopy with biopsy: A thin flexible camera helps our specialist see the interior of your nose and throat down through the voice box. During the procedure, a sample of tissue can be obtained for evaluation if needed. Topical numbing medication is used to make the procedure more comfortable.
  • Barium swallow and upper GI series: A special x-ray that highlights the swallowing process while it is occurring.
  • Chest and/or neck x-ray:  May be ordered to evaluate for possible masses in the chest or neck.
  • Esophageal pH monitoring: This is a tool that measures acid in the esophagus and can help identify if acid reflux is a contributing factor.
  • Esophageal manometry: This study looks at and measures the pressure when the esophagus contracts and helps to identify motility or muscular disorders that may be causing the swallowing disorder.
  • HIV testing: Approximately 40-50% of individuals with HIV will develop a swallowing disorder
  • Throat culture: To test for viruses such as cytomegalovirus (CMV) or the herpes virus both of which can cause ulcer development in the throat and esophagus.

Having a hard time swallowing every now and then, especially if you eat or drink too quickly or you don’t chew your food well enough, is not reason for concern. However, if you frequently experience discomfort or the feeling of taking more time and effort to swallow, you may have a swallowing disorder. Contact us today at one of our three convenient locations in Dacula, Johns Creek, and Lawrenceville for an evaluation by one of our specialists.