10/14/2003 - Questions and Answers

Swallowing difficulties

By: Mark Castleden



My grandmother is in her eighties and has recently lost 30 pounds due to what she says is a choking sensation when she tries to swallow food. What could this be due to?


The swallowing mechanism is very complex. The lips, the teeth, the tongue, the muscles of the throat, and the muscles of the esophagus (the connection between the throat and stomach) have to work together rhythmically. If there is a break in this rhythm whatever we swallow does not get propelled down to the stomach efficiently. This can cause both obstruction to swallowing and food or liquids "going down the wrong pipe." The latter problem often causes the person to cough and sputter while eating.

What you describe is a common problem in older people. Swallowing exercises often help teach the person to bypass the abnormal area making eating more normal. While this is the most common reason for a swallowing dysfunction in an elderly person one must also be aware of the possibility of a tumor obstructing the back of the throat or esophagus. Neurologic disease of the swallowing muscles can cause the same symptoms as can a stroke (a blood vessel dysfunction in the brain).

I advise having your grandmother evaluated by an ear, nose and throat physician (an otorhinologist, or ENT physician), who can examine the throat for any obvious growths and order any appropriate tests. These tests often include an x-ray study of the swallowing mechanism called a modified barium or "cookie" swallow.


  • Dysphagia Links
Created on: 10/02/2002
Reviewed on: 10/14/2003

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