In uncommon situations, swallowing difficulties can be related to a tumor or a nerve system disorder. It happens to people of all ages, but more often in the elderly. If swallowing is difficult on a regular basis, you should see an ENT (ear, nose, and throat) specialist, or otolaryngologist.
People normally swallow hundreds of times a day to eat solids, drink liquids, and swallow the normal saliva and mucus that the body produces. The process of swallowing has four related stages:
The third and fourth parts of the swallowing process happen automatically, without you even thinking about it.
Symptoms of swallowing disorders may include:
Dysphagia may result from one or more of these issues:
Your ENT specialist may work with other healthcare specialists, such as a gastroenterologist (GI), neurologist, and/or speech-language pathologist (SLP), to accurately diagnose and effectively treat the source of the problem.
When dysphagia is frequent, and the cause is not clear, your ENT specialist will discuss the history of your problem and examine your mouth and throat. They may insert a small tube called a flexible laryngoscope through your nose to help them examine your throat in greater detail. Sometimes, giving you food or liquid while the scope is in place helps them get a better look at the back of your tongue, throat, and voice box (larynx), and see what happens when you swallow. This procedure is called Flexible Endoscopic Evaluation of Swallowing (FEES).
Your doctor and/or specialist may also order other tests like the barium swallow (or esophagram) and modified barium swallow. In these tests, instead of a flexible laryngoscope, X-rays record how food and drinks go down, and help your doctor evaluate the entire swallowing process. If necessary, they may do an examination of the esophagus, called Trans-Nasal Esophagoscopy (TNE), or refer you to a GI doctor for an upper endoscopy, which evaluates the esophagus and stomach with a flexible camera. TNE is similar to flexible laryngoscopy except the scope is longer and is passed all the way to the stomach. Additional testing can include pressure testing (manometry), which evaluates pressure created by the throat and esophagus muscles to see if they are working correctly.
If you have trouble swallowing, it is important to seek treatment to help you avoid malnutrition, dehydration, and pneumonia.
Copyright 2019. American Academy of Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery Foundation. Last reviewed August 2018.
Disorders that affect our ability to speak and swallow properly can have a tremendous impact on our lives and livelihoods. ENT specialists treat sore throat, infections, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), throat tumors, airway and vocal cord disorders, and more.
The information on ENThealth.org is provided solely for educational purposes and does not represent medical advice, nor is it a substitute for seeking professional medical care.
Think you need to consult an ENT specialist? Find someone with the expertise and location that’s best for your needs.
Learn how to stay ENT healthy, prevent problems, and manage existing conditions to improve your, or a loved one’s, daily life.