IM Board Review

Difficulty swallowing solid foods; food ‘getting stuck in the chest’

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A 61-year-old woman presents to her primary care physician because for the last 4 weeks she has had difficulty swallowing solid food and a feeling of food “getting stuck in the chest.” She also reports having nausea, mild epigastric pain, and heartburn. She denies having fevers, chills, night sweats, weight loss, vomiting, diarrhea, hematochezia, or melena.

Medical history

For the past 20 years, she has had gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), intermittently treated with a proton pump inhibitor. She also has arthritis, hyperlipidemia, hypertension, and asthma, and she has undergone right hip replacement for a hip fracture. She has no known allergies.

She lives in the Midwest region of the United States and is on disability due to her arthritis. She is divorced and has three children.

She quit smoking 3 years ago after smoking half a pack per day for 30 years. She drinks socially; she has never used recreational drugs.

She recalls that an uncle had cancer, but she does not know the specific type.

Physical examination

The patient’s temperature is 96.7°F (35.9°C), heart rate 86 per minute, blood pressure 150/92 mm Hg, respiratory rate 16 per minute, and oxygen saturation 100% on room air.

She is alert and oriented to time, place, and person. Her sclera are white, her lymph nodes are not palpable, and her heart and lungs appear normal. Her abdomen is tender in the area of the stomach and in the left upper quadrant, there are no signs of peritonitis, the liver and spleen are not enlarged, and no masses can be palpated. She has no asterixis. Results of her complete neurologic examination are normal. Her extremities are normal with no edema. Her laboratory values are shown in Table 1.

Differential diagnosis

Although the differential diagnosis at this stage is broad, a few conditions that commonly present like this are:

  • Esophageal cancer
  • Esophageal stricture
  • Esophageal webs
  • Esophagitis (infectious, inflammatory)
  • Peptic ulcer disease.


1. Which test will you order now for this patient?

  • Endoscopy (esophagogastroduodenoscopy)
  • Serum Helicobacter pylori antibody testing
  • Wireless pH monitoring
  • Barium swallow

Endoscopy would be the best test to order. Esophageal cancer and esophageal stricture must be ruled out, in view of her long history of GERD, gastritis, and smoking and her alarming symptoms of difficulty swallowing and food sticking. In this situation, endoscopy is the first test recommended. In addition to its diagnostic value, it offers an opportunity to obtain tissue samples and to perform a therapeutic intervention, if necessary.1,2

H pyloriantibody testing is used in the “test-and-treat approach” for H pylori infection, an established management strategy for patients who have uninvestigated dyspepsia and who are younger than 55 years and have no “alarm features,” ie, red flags for cancer. The alarm features commonly described are anemia, early satiety, unexplained weight loss, bleeding, odynophagia, progressive dysphagia, unexplained vomiting, and a family history or prior history of gastrointestinal malignancy.3

Our patient’s symptoms raise the possibility of cancer, so that H pylori testing would not be the best test to order at this point.

Ambulatory wireless pH monitoring with a wireless pH capsule is useful for confirming GERD in those with persistent symptoms (whether typical or atypical) who do not have evidence of mucosal damage on initial endoscopy, particularly if a trial of acid suppression has failed.4–6

Barium swallow is an x-ray examination of the esophagus with contrast. It can show both the anatomy and the function of the esophagus, and it would be the initial diagnostic procedure of choice for patients with dysphagia who have no alarm symptoms.7 However, our patient does have alarm symptoms.

First highlight point

  • Endoscopy is the first test in patients with dysphagia with alarm symptoms.


Figure 1. Endoscopic view shows multiple nodules in the body of the stomach (arrow).

The patient undergoes endoscopy, which shows erosive esophagitis (grade B according to the Los Angeles classification8), gastritis, and multiple smooth nodules measuring 3 to 5 mm in the body of the stomach (Figure 1).

Multiple biopsies of the nodules show atypical lymphoid infiltrates with small cleaved lymphocytes that are mostly positive for CD5, CD20, and CD43 and negative for CD10 and CD23 by flow cytometry. In addition, a staining test for H pylori is positive.

Comment. Our patient has had GERD for the past 20 years, intermittently treated with a proton pump inhibitor. Acid suppressive therapy with a proton pump inhibitor is the standard of care of patients with erosive esophagitis. In standard doses, these drugs control symptoms in most cases and heal esophagitis in almost 90% of cases within 4 to 8 weeks.9 Proton pump inhibitors are also effective for maintaining healing of esophagitis and controlling symptoms in patients who respond to an acute course of therapy for a period of 6 to 12 months.10


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