Have you ever been eating a meal and found yourself experiencing difficulty getting it down? Perhaps you were able to swallow but it never went “fully down.” You may have dysphagia.
In such cases, it can feel like you have your meal stuck somewhere in your throat or chest?
There really is a name for this condition — it’s called dysphagia, and while most of us have experienced it from time to time with little to no harmful effects, it can hint at potential serious problems if it occurs chronically.
In the following article, we’ll be taking a closer look at what it means to have dysphagia, other medical conditions for which it could be an underlying condition, and how to address it from both a medical and natural health standpoint. Let’s begin.
In the simplest sense of the term, dysphagia is mere “difficulty swallowing.” But it’s important not to oversimplify because it can come in different forms with differing degrees of severity.
Symptoms of this condition may include the following:
- Pain when swallowing: yes, it’s possible to get everything down with dysphagia, but if you experience pain and discomfort while doing so, then you still have the condition. Monitor with each meal to see if the sensation is present or if it comes and goes infrequently.
- A sore throat: for these particular cases, you may be experiencing a milder form of dysphagia, but that doesn’t make it any more endurable especially as it holds over time. As with the pain, while swallowing, it may be caused by some type of obstruction in the throat or esophagus. More on that in a bit.
- Choking: in this case, rather than hurting your throat on the way down, the food, as well as the cause of your dysphagia, is triggering the gag reflex and making it difficult on normal breathing.
- Coughing: can make it rather difficult to get food all the way down, leading to reflux and regurgitation.
- Gurgling or regurgitating food or stomach acids: this also can have a damaging effect on the esophagus, thus making it more difficult to swallow for future meals.
- Feeling food “stuck” behind the sternum: leads to difficulty breathing as well, and it may impair sleep, which can result in a host of health issues.
- Burning sensation behind the sternum: common in heartburn, which dysphagia can cause.
- Hoarseness: that “stuck” feeling can mean it’s not just difficult to eat and swallow, but also to speak.
So that’s what can happen with dysphagia. Now let’s look a little deeper and try to figure out the “why” part.
The General Causes of Dysphagia
Dysphagia can have multiple causes, but it’s often tied to the nervous system. As Medical News Today notes, “Issues in the throat are often caused by a neurological problem that affects the nerves (such as Parkinson’s disease, stroke, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis).”
With esophageal dysphagia (low dysphagia), the site states, “the problem is in the esophagus” usually because of “a blockage or irritation.”
Tumors and abnormal facial developments (think cleft palate or lip) may be to blame as well. If you start to experience it with any regularity, it’s vital to check with a doctor and determine the cause as it could be an indicator of a serious underlying condition even though dysphagia itself is not typically life-threatening.
We’ll delve into that in the next section.
Effects of Anxiety on Dysphagia
When you first experience dysphagia — or at least experience it with greater frequency — it can be a source of stress and anxiety. From that point, it becomes a recurring problem, like a self-fulfilling prophecy of poor health.
One should not discount the psychological components, and that’s why some of the home remedies we’ll be discussing later are important to keep in mind.
Worst Case Scenarios
We wouldn’t go as far as saying no one has ever died of dysphagia. After all, the inability to swallow can lead to choking and other emergency hazards.
But the worst-case scenario for those living with the condition usually has more to do with the disease or disorder at which it’s hinting.
For example, ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease, is a lethal disease with a pretty much non-existent survival rate. Chronic dysphagia frequently ties into ALS.
But from a direct standpoint, dysphagia “can cause patients to aspirate food and liquid into the lungs, leading to infections, aspiration pneumonia, and death,” according to researchers at the University of Wisconsin.
Don’t wait around to find out what’s wrong. There are treatments — both medical and natural — that you can turn to if you’re suffering from this condition. In the next section, we’ll be discussing your options.
How Dysphagia Is Typically Treated
The first thing you’ll need to do is get to your doctor to ensure that none of the worst-case scenarios are in your future. If they are, then you’ll have a bigger issue to worry about (and a different treatment path).
Once you’ve been able to eliminate the big stuff, it becomes easier to hone in on the true cause of the swallowing issue. This could be due to an esophageal tumor. Tumors can be either benign or malignant.
Either way, a surgical option is likely in order to clear the obstruction and allow the normal passage of air and food.
Of course, surgery isn’t ever an attractive option, especially for that area. You’ll want to discuss possible medications with your doctor. Corticosteroids and smooth muscle relaxants are popular and effective. These reduce stomach acid and make it easier to function.
For more on how these operate in the dysphagia context, check out this article from our friends at the Mayo Clinic. But for the remainder of this article, we’d like to turn to some natural solutions that will help you better deal with this condition. Let’s continue.
16 Natural Treatments for Dysphagia
If you’re like us, you’re not the type of person who likes to rely on prescription medications like those mentioned above in order to address a problem.
Sometimes it’s unavoidable. But others, you can do things on your own to work around it.
This section will detail the natural side of things. Some of these are simple techniques you’ll want to employ. In other instances, we’ll be recommending some essential oils that can help.
Here are your options.
1. Postural Adjustments
There are several adjustments you can make to your posture that can help deal with dysphagia. Among them, the following:
- The chin tuck: chin against the top of the chest. Helps control the flow of food into the esophagus so you’re not taking on too much too fast.
- The recliner position: body angled backward but still upright. As with the chin tuck, it helps to break down the food and take in smaller portions.
- Head rotation: turning the head. Narrows one side of the throat and widens the other. Allows enough space to get food down.
- Side inclination: tilting to one side or the other. Pay close attention to the “side” of your body that has the most trouble.
For the more scientific explanations and detailed photographs, check out this article.
2. Focused Exercises
When you want to improve the strength of your muscles, what do you do? The answer, of course, is exercise. You stress the area you want to strengthen through either resistance or weight.
This is the same concept, only instead of doing curls and chest presses, you’re targeting the areas most responsible for breaking down and swallowing food.
There are three areas, in particular — the tongue, the lips, and the jaw. How do you exercise these body parts? The short answer is, more simply than you would arms and legs. That’s because you’re not packing on weights and lifting them until you drop.
No, instead you do subtle exercises like simulating the chewing motion, bending your lips inward between the teeth and outward in a kissing motion.
You also can move your tongue from side to side both inside and outside of the mouth. (You may want to go inside if you’re going to be around a lot of people.)
These simple, focused exercises will strengthen the three key areas and give you better control over the chewing and breaking down of food so it moves more freely into the esophagus.
The Chinese art of acupuncture is an increasingly popular way of dealing with dysphagia, particularly for men and women who experience the onset of dysphagia as the result of a stroke or neurological condition.
Acupuncture is said to do three things to help overcome the condition. First, it reportedly increases saliva production. Saliva provides the necessary amount of lubrication to get food down. Secondly, it reconnects the swallowing function by stimulating nerves in the throat.
Finally, acupuncture keeps the throat from scarring or stiffening. This is said to help prevent the return of dysphagia. As for how often you should get it done, the short answer is however long you need it.
We’d recommend starting with one session and seeing how long it holds up before scheduling more.
4. Eat Smaller Meals and Pieces
This is a tough one if you have dysphagia and a big appetite. The Western diet tends to focus on large meals instead of smaller ones at greater frequencies. But if you can put away that mindset, you can really start to see some results in the ease of swallowing.
Schedule 4-6 eating sessions per day. Try to spread the food you’d normally eat in 2-3 meals across that span. Adjust it to meet the severity you are experiencing.
If you normally eat two meals per day, for example, consider doubling it and eating once in the morning, once at mid-morning, once in the early afternoon, and once in the evening.
An even division across the higher number of meals will ensure less food at a time. From there, make sure you’re cutting or breaking food into smaller pieces than you normally would.
5. Avoid ‘Sticky’ Foods
There are certain so-called “sticky” foods that you will want to move away from if you are dealing with a bout of mild dysphagia. We say “mild” dysphagia because we’re assuming you can still eat solid foods.
If you can’t eat solid foods, then we do hope you’re following the medical protocols set forth by your doctor.
Otherwise, here are the food no-nos.
- Fresh fruit: seems odd that you can’t have something as healthy as fresh fruit, but this isn’t as much a matter of nutritional content as it is texture and juices. Fresh fruits tend to further constrict the swallowing function. If you’re already having trouble with that (dysphagia), the problem will only get worse.
- Uncooked vegetables: veggies are generally more rigid and drier than fresh fruit in their uncooked state. If you’re already not producing enough saliva and having issues swallowing, it can be pretty much impossible getting a piece of raw broccoli down.
- Doughnuts: a literal “sticky” food, doughnuts in all their forms gravitate to the roof of your mouth and cause a logjam whenever you try to force them into the esophagus.
- White bread: same principle as doughnuts. Fresh white bread, in particular, is very stubborn about moving into the esophagus. For dysphagia patients, it can cause choking and trouble breathing.
- Fruit-added yogurt: while the yogurt itself isn’t too bad, the fruit add-in creates problems.
- Meat that hasn’t been well-cooked or prepared: think meat on its own, meat with lots of greases, etc. Now, you may be able to handle it in a casserole or other blend provided it’s paired with foods that are easy to get down.
That’s just a partial list. You’ll certainly want to talk to your doctor because he or she will have a much clearer idea of the severity of your case as well as the underlying cause.
6. Swallowing Techniques
Changing how you swallow is a nuanced thing that’s hard to describe if you’re not acutely aware of the areas where you’re having trouble. (Don’t worry, you will be.) Usually, there is some form of paralysis going on with the mouth and throat.
Being tuned into where those weak spots are will allow you to shift most of the attention to the parts of your throat that are still working.
Practice by swallowing extremely small morsels of food. Whatever your normal bite size would be, cut it in half. Make notes to yourself about where the “clogs” are occurring and start favoring the stronger areas. For more help, refer back to the posturing section.
7. Thicker Liquids
With thicker liquids (like smoothies, for instance), it becomes easier to get the foods you want and the nutrition you need without it going down too fast or “the wrong way.”
Thickening up your liquids with blended fruits and veggies gives you the chance to do a controlled swallow while holding most of the liquid in the “chamber” of your mouth just before it enters into the esophagus.
This gives you control over how much and how quickly you’re able to move the food into the esophagus.
8. Holy Basil
Essential oils can be extremely helpful in calming certain aspects of your dysphagia. You can diffuse them, apply as a topical or, in extremely small quantities, use them orally or as an additive to a food or beverage.
With holy basil, you’ve got an essential oil well-known for its ability to ease stress and anxiety. And if you’re having difficulty consuming your food, that usually ratchets up stress and anxiety.
Another stress-easing oil, this is well-known in popular culture as one of the three gifts brought to the infant Jesus in the original Christmas story from biblical times.
That’s how far back the influence and reputation of frankincense goes! When using frankincense, it usually works best in aromatherapy.
In addition to its anxiety-fighting elements, geranium is a great oil for fighting inflammation. If your dysphagia is caused by an inflammation in the esophagus or the mouth, then this can help ease the obstruction and get your swallowing back to normal.
Helichrysum oil seems like it was specially designed for dysphagia. For starters, it fights inflammation. Also, it’s an antioxidant with antimicrobial, anti-fungal, and antibacterial properties.
Why is that important? Because it helps restore your immune system and fights possible infections and illnesses of the mouth. These two benefits will keep you chewing and your body healthy as you work through the issue.
Shares many of the same qualities as helichrysum oil, particularly the antioxidant and pro-immune system benefits.
There have been lots of qualities attributed to marjoram, including use as an aphrodisiac. Probably the most beneficial to the person dealing with dysphagia is its use as an antispasmodic agent.
Spasms are difficult to control with dysphagia because you’re dealing with hazards like choking, coughing, and heartburn every time you eat something. Using marjoram may keep spasms in check, thus allowing your digestive system to operate as normally as possible.
Another original Christmas classic along with gold and frankincense, myrrh continues to be highly valued across the globe for its natural medicinal qualities. It’s primarily used for wound healing and as pain relief, but it also has anti-inflammatory and pro-immune system qualities that can make it easier for food to move throughout the body.
If you’ve never taken peppermint oil before, it can be quite a trip. You’ll first feel a slight tingle — maybe even burning sensation — before it cools into a comfortable numbness that essentially relaxes your muscles and puts them in a better place to do their work.
Peppermint has been used for pain relief, irritable bowel syndrome, like a mosquito deterrent, and to soothe sunburns.
But for people dealing with dysphagia, it’s useful for relaxing the tongue, jaw, and throat so those feelings of constriction fade away leaving one to focus on chewing, swallowing, and proper digestion.
The last essential oil we’ll be sharing as a “must have” for dealing with dysphagia is rosemary. Rosemary oil offers a slew of benefits, many of which cross-pollinate with the issues that people going through dysphagia experience.
In improving cognitive function, it may help many of the neurological causes of dysphagia. Additionally, it’s a stress-reliever, a relaxant, and a means of soothing inflammation and indigestion.
Since indigestion becomes more severe with dysphagia, this is a very promising natural treatment you should try, without question.
One final word about essential oils: not all of the described effects will work the same for each person who tries them. We’re all different, and it’s tough to know which will work best for you individually.
We recommend trying a few different options, or even combinations, and gauging which makes you feel the best for your particular case.
Final Considerations for Dysphagia
Dysphagia may be simply described as “trouble swallowing,” but it’s an issue you need to take seriously. Most of the time, it’s nothing to worry about. But if it’s chronic, you need to get to the root of the problem, if for nothing more than to enjoy a better quality of life.
And if you have one of the more serious underlying treatments, the earlier diagnoses give you the best chance to deal with what’s to come. So keep your doctor in the loop and consider trying some of the natural treatments presented here.
Now it’s your turn. Do you have dysphagia? If so, what are some remedies that have worked best? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.