If you’re having difficulty swallowing or getting food down, your next stop should be your doctor’s office.

“Dysphagia is like an alarm feature,” says Amir Masoud, MD, the medical co-director of Hartford HealthCare Neurogastroenterology and Motility Center. “It should be an automatic trigger to see your doctor or gastroenterologist immediately.”

Here’s what you should know about dysphagia, according to Dr. Masoud.

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If you’re having trouble swallowing or getting food down, it might be dysphagia.

Dysphagia is a general word to describe any difficulty getting food from your mouth all the way down to your stomach.

Dysphagia can show up in a couple of ways. You might have trouble swallowing or moving food out of your mouth into your throat. Or you may have trouble getting food down, with a feeling like it gets stuck in your chest.

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Dysphagia is usually caused by an injury or is a symptom of a disease.

Dr. Masoud shares some possible causes for dysphagia:

  1. Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD): Chronic or severe reflux can weaken your esophagus. If it can’t contract normally, food can have trouble getting down or get held up.
  2. A narrowing in your esophagus: If you have an injury in the esophagus it could heal by scarring causing a narrow area in your esophagus also called a stricture. Food can snag in these areas.
  3. Hiatal hernias: This is a common condition where your stomach can shift up into your chest leading to a weakening of the reflux barrier and even block food from passing into your stomach.
  4. After a stroke: Muscle weakness and abnormal coordination can cause difficulty swallowing, called oropharyngeal dysphagia.

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Even if dysphagia seems like it’s getting better, you should still see a doctor right away.

Unfortunately, dysphagia doesn’t really go away on its own.

Some people try to manage this in various ways:

  • Avoid certain foods.
  • Chop or cut food into tiny pieces.
  • Only eat foods/liquids that go down easily.

“It’s easy to make subtle changes that add up to a very restrictive diet without even realizing it,” says Dr. Masoud. “But if you’re not swallowing normally, you need an evaluation.”

4 signs it’s time to see a doctor for dysphagia.

Do any of these scenarios sound familiar?

  1. Swallowing just became difficult last week.
  2. You only have trouble swallowing big pieces of tough things like steak.
  3. You can’t swallow mashed potatoes or even a milkshake without difficulty.
  4. Sometimes even water is tough to get down.

“These answers tell us something,” explains Dr. Masoud. “When you come to us, we’ll do a physical exam and spend a lot of time talking things through to figure out what the problem could be and how to fix it.”

Your doctor may recommend imaging scans, swallowing tests or an upper endoscopy. And the good news is that treatment works.

“The majority of the causes of dysphagia are manageable,” says Dr. Masoud.

You deserve to enjoy food.

“Eating is one of the joys of life, but eating without thinking about the actual process is something that we can take for granted,” says Dr. Masoud.

If you feel that your life revolves around what you can or can’t swallow, it doesn’t need to be that way.

“You don’t have to suffer with these symptoms,” he adds. “We can maximize function, decrease suffering and improve your quality of life.”