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Understanding the Causes of Dysphagia

A couple consults with a healthcare professional about treatment plans for dysphagia

Difficulty swallowing, or dysphagia, is a complex diagnosis. Simply put, dysphagia means it takes more time and effort to move food or liquid from your mouth to your stomach.[i] Individuals with dysphagia may feel pain when swallowing, and in severe cases, swallowing may be impossible. Dysphagia can occur at any age but is more prevalent in older adults. Treatment often depends on the root cause, so it is vital to understand the many different causes of dysphagia.

Types of Dysphagia

  • Oral dysphagia (high dysphagia) — An issue in the mouth, sometimes caused by tongue weakness after a stroke, difficulty chewing food, or problems transporting food from the mouth.
  • Pharyngeal dysphagia — An issue in the throat, often caused by a neurological problem that affects the nerves.
  • Esophageal dysphagia (low dysphagia) — An issue in the esophagus. This is usually because of a blockage or irritation. Often, a surgical procedure is required.[ii]

Causes of Dysphagia

Swallowing difficulties can result from damage to the nervous system, such as:[iii]ii

Conditions affecting the head, neck, and esophagus can also cause dysphagia, including:

  • Cancer in the mouth, throat, or esophagus
  • Radiation therapy, which can lead to inflammation or scarring of the esophagus
  • Injury or surgery involving the head and neck
  • Achalasia, or when the lower esophageal muscle does not relax enough to allow food into the stomachi
  • Cleft lip and palateii
  • Acid reflux and Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
  • Decayed or missing teeth
  • Poorly fitting dentures
  • Pharyngoesophageal diverticulum (Zenker’s diverticulum), or when a small pouch that forms and collects food particles in the throat, often just above the esophagus, leads to difficulty swallowingi

Dysphagia Treatment

Treatment of dysphagia varies depending on the cause and severity of symptoms. If you or someone you know is having trouble swallowing, consult a physician for an accurate diagnosis of the symptoms to develop a treatment plan.

While a dysphagia diagnosis for you or a loved one may seem overwhelming, gathering as much information as possible will help you build peace of mind and a strong treatment plan. For a list of helpful organizations, articles, and information about swallowing disorders, review the Thick-It® brand Dysphagia Resource Guide for Patients and Caregivers and our list of Dysphagia Facts.


Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have about the use of Thick-It® products. The information contained herein is general and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment in any manner.


[i]Dysphagia,” Mayo Clinic, Oct. 17, 2019.
[ii] Newman, Tim, “What causes difficulty swallowing (dysphagia)?” Medical News Today, Dec. 21, 2017.
[iii] Kahn, April, “What Causes Difficulty in Swallowing?” Healthline, Aug. 13, 2020.

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