Swallowing issues must be checked

We have all had the experience of getting something “stuck in our throat.” This is actually a fairly common experience and is usually not a serious problem. Most of the time the food that has been stuck moves on down your esophagus (muscular food tube) and goes into your stomach. However, if any swallowing difficulty is happening to a person fairly often, or is happening more and more frequently, it needs to be assessed by a medical professional without delay.

So, what may be the cause of this swallowing disorder when something seems to get stuck in the back of our throat or behind our breast bone as it passes down the esophagus on its way down to the stomach? Although it is not common, the cause of getting food stuck during swallowing may possibly be due to a very serious health matter such as esophageal cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, there are about 18,000 new esophageal cancer cases each year in the entire U.S., resulting in about 15,000 annual deaths.

It is important to chew your food properly to avoid swallowing problems. A common cause of food getting stuck in one’s throat is due to not thoroughly chewing our food. Even in a completely normal esophagus, larger, only partially chewed pieces of food may well get stuck. If this large piece of food does not eventually go down into the stomach, one may need a trip to the emergency department for treatment to have it removed.

Recall that the esophagus is truly a long tubular muscle, and this muscle contracts in sequence from the upper to the lower esophagus. Occasionally, this muscle may also go into a spasm and stay squeezed down, and this can cause food to get stuck as well. This spasm will usually resolve in a short time on its own.

Further, a narrowing in the lower part of the esophagus may be caused from stomach acid refluxing (going up) into the lower esophagus and this can cause inflammation, scarring, and narrowing. This acid reflux into the lower esophagus is medically referred to as GERD and this abbreviation stands for gastro esophageal reflux disease.

If this condition goes untreated for a number of years, it can even lead to cancer of the lower esophagus. Of course, the proper treatment for excess stomach acid causing symptoms such as GERD, heartburn, gastritis (stomach inflammation) or ulcers is to use one of the many medications available today to effectively reduce excess stomach acid. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, be sure to promptly review this with your health care provider.

How do we medically assess a persistent swallowing disorder? Truly, the standard of care is to have a trained health care professional do an upper G.I. endoscopy procedure. This offers many advantages in that a correct diagnosis of the cause of the swallowing disorder can be made, and proper treatment can then be recommended. A further important benefit of having this procedure done is that the gastroenterologist may choose to open any narrowed area in the esophagus at the time of this procedure. This is done by using flexible tapered tubes to gently stretch the narrowed area by passing increasingly larger diameter tubes through the narrowed area. Obviously, this is a specialized medical procedure that should only be done by a qualified medical professional.

Bottom line: If you experience any ongoing swallowing difficulties, see your health care provider and have this checked right away to determine the cause and to recommend proper treatment.

Editor’s note: Dr. Jim Surrell, author of “SOS (Stop Only Sugar) Diet,” has his practice at the Digestive Health Clinic at Marquette General Health System. Requests for health topics for this column are encouraged.