In Focus

Approach to dysphagia



Dysphagia is the sensation of difficulty swallowing food or liquid in the acute or chronic setting. The prevalence of dysphagia ranges based on the type and etiology but may impact up to one in six adults.1,2 Dysphagia can cause a significant impact on a patient’s health and overall quality of life. A recent study found that only 50% of symptomatic adults seek medical care despite modifying their eating habits by either eating slowly or changing to softer foods or liquids.1 The most common, serious complications of dysphagia include aspiration pneumonia, malnutrition, and dehydration.3 According to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, dysphagia may be responsible for up to 60,000 deaths annually.3

Dr. Tanisha Ronnie department of internal medicine at Loyola University Chicago, Maywood, Ill

Dr. Tanisha Ronnie

The diagnosis of esophageal dysphagia can be challenging. An initial, thorough history is essential to delineate between oropharyngeal and esophageal dysphagia and guide subsequent diagnostic testing. In recent years, there have been a number of advances in the approach to diagnosing dysphagia, including novel diagnostic modalities. The goal of this review article is to discuss the current approach to esophageal dysphagia and future direction to allow for timely diagnosis and management.


The diagnosis of dysphagia begins with a thorough history. Questions about the timing, onset, progression, localization of symptoms, and types of food that are difficult to swallow are essential in differentiating oropharyngeal and esophageal dysphagia.3,4 Further history taking must include medication and allergy review, smoking history, and review of prior radiation or surgical therapies to the head and neck.

Dr. Lauren Bloomberg

Briefly, oropharyngeal dysphagia is difficulty initiating a swallow or passing food from the mouth or throat and can be caused by structural or functional etiologies.5 Clinical presentations include a sensation of food stuck in the back of the throat, coughing or choking while eating, or drooling. Structural causes include head and neck cancer, Zenker diverticulum, Killian Jamieson diverticula, prolonged intubation, or changes secondary to prior surgery or radiation.3 Functional causes may include neurologic, rheumatologic, or muscular disorders.6

Esophageal dysphagia refers to difficulty transporting food or liquid down the esophagus and can be caused by structural, inflammatory, or functional disorders.5 Patients typically localize symptoms of heartburn, regurgitation, nausea, vomiting, cough, or chest pain along the sternum or epigastric region. Alarm signs concerning for malignancy include unintentional weight loss, fevers, or night sweats.3,7 Aside from symptoms, medication review is essential, as dysphagia is a common side effect of antipsychotics, anticholinergics, antimuscarinics, narcotics, and immunosuppressant drugs.8 Larger pills such as NSAIDs, antibiotics, bisphosphonates, potassium supplements, and methylxanthines can cause drug-induced esophagitis, which can initially present as dysphagia.8 Inflammatory causes can be elucidated by obtaining a history about allergies, tobacco use, and recent infections such as thrush or pneumonia. Patients with a history of recurrent pneumonias may be silently aspirating, a complication of dysphagia.3 Once esophageal dysphagia is clinically suspected based on history, workup can begin.


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