How to Treat Swallowing Problems

Swallowing may seem like a simple task, but, it takes about 50 pairs of muscles and nerves to bite, chew, and swallow. When you swallow, your tongue pushes food to the back of your throat where muscle contractions quickly move the food through the esophagus (the tube connecting your throat and stomach). When you have difficulty swallowing, known as dysphagia, it means that it will take more time and effort to move food or liquid from your mouth to your stomach. In some instances, the problem may be so severe that you may not be able to swallow at all. While dysphagia can occur at any age, the condition is more common in older adults.


A number of conditions can interfere with swallowing including:

  • Esophageal stricture-the esophagus becomes narrow, causing large chunks of food to get stuck. A narrow esophagus may be the result of excessive scar tissue often caused by gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) or from tumors.
  • Scleroderma-your tissues become hard and stiff, which can weaken the lower esophageal muscle (sphincter), allowing acid to reflux into the esophagus and causing symptoms similar to GERD.
  • Radiation therapy-this treatment can swell and scar your esophagus, causing difficulty swallowing.
  • Achalasia-the lower esophageal muscle doesn't relax properly to let food pass through the stomach and sometimes causes food back-up in the throat.
  • Neurological disorders-medical conditions such as multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, and Parkinson's disease can weaken the throat muscles, making it difficult to move food through your mouth and throat and into the esophagus. You may experience choking, gagging, or coughing when you try to swallow or have the sensation of food or fluids going down your windpipe or up your nose.
  • Neurological damage-sudden neurological damage caused by a stroke or brain or spinal cord injury can cause difficulty swallowing.
  • Cancer-certain cancers as well as cancer treatments can cause difficulty swallowing.
  • Unexplained dysphagia-some people may have a problem swallowing pills or tablets, but don't have other difficulty swallowing.


Treatment for dysphagia varies depending on the cause. In some instances, certain exercises may help relax swallowing muscles or re-stimulate nerves that trigger the swallowing reflex. For swallowing problems associated with GERD, prescription medications can reduce stomach acid and ease the ability to ingest food.

An occasional difficulty with swallowing usually isn't a cause for concern. But if you regularly experiencing this problem, including pain, hoarseness, coughing, gagging, or frequent heartburn, see your doctor.