Dysphagia (Difficulty Swallowing)

  • Medical Author:
    Jay W. Marks, MD

    Jay W. Marks, MD, is a board-certified internist and gastroenterologist. He graduated from Yale University School of Medicine and trained in internal medicine and gastroenterology at UCLA/Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.

  • Medical Editor: Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD
    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.

woman with abdominal pain

What is the prognosis for dysphagia?

With the exception of dysphagia caused by stroke for which there can be marked improvement, dysphagia from other causes is stable or progressive, and the prognosis depends on the underlying cause, its tendency to progress, the availability of therapy, and the response to therapy.

  • In general, the prognosis for non-malignant obstruction of the esophagus is good with treatment. Even dysphagia caused by malignant obstruction can be palliated with endoscopic resection of part of the tumor and/or stenting.
  • Neurologic and muscular diseases causing dysphagia are a mixed bag.
  • Treatment of achalasia is quite effective, treatment for spastic motility disorders much less so.
  • As mentioned previously, ineffective peristalsis by itself usually does not cause important or progressive dysphagia.
  • Progressive neurologic and skeletal muscle diseases are the most difficult to treat and carry the worst prognosis.

What does the future offer for dysphagia?

Recent developments in the diagnostic arena are beginning to bring new insights into esophageal function, specifically, high resolution and 3D manometry, and endoscopic ultrasound.

High resolution and 3D manometry

High resolution and 3D manometry are extensions of standard manometry that utilize similar catheters. The difference is that the pressure-sensing locations on the catheters are very close together and ring the catheter. Recording of pressures from so many locations gives an extremely detailed picture of how esophageal muscle is contracting. The primary value of these diagnostic procedures is that they "integrate" the activities of the esophagus so that the overall pattern of swallowing can be recognized, which is particularly important in complex motility disorders. In addition, their added detail allows the recognition of subtle abnormalities and hopefully will be able to help define the clinical importance of subtle abnormalities of muscle contraction associated with lesser degrees of dysphagia.

Endoscopic ultrasonography

Endoscopic ultrasonography has been available for many years but has recently been applied to the evaluation of esophageal muscle diseases. Ultrasound uses sound waves to penetrate tissues. The sound waves are reflected by the tissues and structures they encounter, and, when analyzed, the reflections give information about the tissues and structures from which they are reflected. In the esophagus, endoscopic ultrasonography has been used to determine the extent of penetration of tumors into the esophageal wall and the presence of metastases to adjacent lymph nodes. More recently, endoscopic ultrasonography has been used to obtain a detailed look at the muscles of the esophagus. What has been found is that in some disorders, particularly the spastic motility disorders, the muscle of the esophagus is thickened. Moreover, thickening of the muscle sometimes can be recognized only by ultrasonography even when spastic abnormalities are not seen with manometry. The exact role of endoscopic ultrasonography has not yet been determined but is an exciting area for future research.

Medically reviewed by John A. Daller, MD; American Board of Surgery

REFERENCE: Feldman, M., Scharschmidt, B. F., Sleisenger, M. H., Klein, S. Sleisenger & Fordtran's Gastrointestinal and Liver Disease, W. B. Saunders Company, 1998.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 3/9/2016

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