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Healthy Geezer: Persistent dysphagia can be a concern

Q. I’ve been having some difficulty swallowing food for the past few weeks. Is this something to worry about or is it another one of those age things?

You shouldn’t worry about occasional difficulty swallowing.

Persistent swallowing problems, though, can be a symptom of a serious condition, so it is something to be concerned about. I’d get it checked out by a physician as soon as possible.

And, yes, difficulty swallowing, called dysphagia, is one of “those age things” ... yet again.

As we get older, the esophagus, which is the tube that connects your throat to your stomach, loses its ability to move food downward. While difficulty with swallowing can happen to anyone, it is most common in older adults.

Swallowing is a three-step process that involves dozens of muscles and nerves to work properly.

Step 1. The tongue gathers the food in your mouth.

Step 2. The tongue pushes the food to the back of the mouth. A swallowing reflex moves the food through the pharynx, a canal linking the mouth and esophagus.

Step 3. The food enters the esophagus. It takes the esophagus about three seconds for the food to be pushed into the stomach.

There are a variety of causes for dysphagia. Probably the most common cause for occasional problems are chewing improperly or gobbling food.

Here are causes of dysphagia:

* The muscle at the base of the esophagus doesn’t let food enter your stomach.

* Narrowing of the esophagus.

* Tumors in the esophagus.

* Food or foreign objects stuck in your throat.

* Stomach acid backing up causing the esophagus to spasm or form scar tissue that narrows this canal. This condition is known as Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD).

* The formation of a small pouch that collects food particles in your throat. This happens more often in older people.

* Weakened throat muscles caused by disease, stroke or spinal-cord injury.

* Improperly coordinated contractions of the esophagus.

Dysphagia can impede nutrition and hydration. If food or liquid get into your windpipe when you’re trying to swallow, you can suffer from respiratory problems, including pneumonia.

Occasional dysphagia can be prevented by chewing thoroughly and slowing down when you eat.

Treating GERD can reduce swallowing problems caused by the narrowing of the esophagus.

There are a variety of tests for dysphagia. They include: an X-ray of a barium-coated esophagus; direct examination of the esophagus with an endoscope, a lighted instrument; a test with a pressure recorder to measure muscle contractions of the esophagus, and video fluoroscopy and ultrasound, two forms of imaging that record patients swallowing.

Treatments include: exercises to help coordinate swallowing muscles or stimulate nerves responsible for the swallowing reflex; expanding the esophagus with an endoscope and balloon attachment; surgery to remove tumors; drugs to reduce stomach acid, and liquid diets or feeding tubes for severe cases.

Some people are taught a different way to eat. For example, they may have to eat with their head turned to one side.

Preparing food differently may help others. People with problems swallowing liquids may need thickeners for their drinks.

Avoiding certain foods, such as very hot or very cold foods, can help those who have dysphagia.

Have a question? Email: fred@healthygeezer.com. Order “How To Be A Healthy Geezer,” 218-page compilation of columns: healthygeezer.com

All Rights Reserved &Copy; 2023 Fred Cicetti

The Times News, Inc. and affiliates (Lehigh Valley Press) do not endorse or recommend any medical products, processes, or services or provide medical advice. The views of the columnist and column do not necessarily state or reflect those of the Lehigh Valley Press. The article content is not intended as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, or other qualified health-care provider, with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.