What is Dysphagia?
Learn about what is dysphagia and what are the causes.
The term Dysphagia refers to the swallowing difficulties caused by a disruption in one or more of the three stages of the normal swallowing process. Dysphagia is not a disease but a symptom. Any disruption in the normal swallowing process can represent a serious threat to a person’s health. The obvious risk is airway obstruction through swallowing things the wrong way. The less obvious but equally serious implication is being unable to swallow the medication needed to treat an illness or disease.
The apparently simple act of swallowing is in fact a highly complex series of neurologically controlled events involving the structures of the oral cavity, pharynx and oesophagus to safely transport food and drink from mouth to stomach. A loose definition of dysphagia is any difficulty which disrupts this process. This may be due to changes to the structures or neurological control involved in swallowing. Although difficulties can occur at any stage of the swallowing process.
A literature review suggested that swallowing difficulties are common among elderly people and potentially can undermine good nutrition, impair quality of life and complicate medication administration. Dysphagia, for example, can affect patients’ ability to take solid oral dosage forms, which could compromise adherence and therapeutic outcomes.Almost 60% of patients enrolled in the survey experienced difficulties swallowing tablets or capsules. Furthermore, 68% of those surveyed needed to open a capsule or crush a tablet to swallow their medication. A similar proportion (69%) admitted not taking a tablet or capsule because it proved hard to swallow. Seventy-two per cent of patients and carers reported that their doctor or nurse never ask if they have difficulties taking tablets or capsules before writing their prescriptions. 
Some people with dysphagia have problems swallowing certain foods or liquids, while others can’t swallow at all.
Other signs of dysphagia include:
- Coughing or choking when eating or drinking
- Bringing food back up, sometimes through the nose
- A sensation that food is stuck in your throat or chest.
- Persistent drooling of saliva.
- Over time, dysphagia can also cause symptoms such as weight loss and repeated chest infections.
There are a number of things which have the potential to cause dysphagia, these may be neurological or mechanical, or a combination. Some of the possible causes of dysphagia are listed below:
- Cerebral palsy
- Muscular dystrophy
- Multiple Sclerosis
- Motor Neurone disease
- Parkinson’s disease
- Head and neck tumours
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- Wright et al. 2011. Prescribing Medicines for Patients with Dysphagia. A handbook for healthcare professionals. Guyson, A. Chapter 1: Dysphagia.
- Medication-related swallowing difficulties may be more common than we realise. Available at: Medication-related swallowing difficulties may be more common than we realise (researchgate.net) (accessed 3rd October 2023)
- Dysphagia (swallowing problems) Available at: Dysphagia (swallowing problems) | NHS inform (accessed 3rd October 2023).