Medical conditions

While millions of people have general difficulty and discomfort swallowing tablets and capsules (especially children transitioning from liquid to solid medications) there are certain medical conditions, or even medical treatments, that are associated with swallowing difficulties or disorders. We describe several of these below, along with links to organizations that provide a wealth of information for people that may suffer from these conditions.

The most common cause of dysphagia, or swallowing disorder, is damage to the central nervous system – often called neurogenic dysphagia. Damage caused to the central swallowing pathway, peripheral nerves, or the meeting points of nerve and muscle fibers can all lead to swallowing disorders. (Hamdy, 2004).

Common conditions causing dysphagia include:

  • Stroke
  • Traumatic brain injury
  • Motor neuron disease
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Neurodegenerative diseases (such as Alzheimer’s disease)
  • Myasthenia Gravis

The most common cause of dysphagia is stroke. According to the American Stroke Association, approximately 65% of stroke patients are reported as having dysphagia. A stroke may cause weakened muscles in the mouth or throat, difficulty with muscle coordination impairing swallowing function and possibly a loss of taste and tongue sensation. For more information on dysphagia caused by stroke please visit the American Stroke Association’s website.

Trauma to the head can lead to dysphagia due to damage to the brain, brain stem or cranial nerve. Such damage can effect the skills coordination and/or muscles in the throat or mouth which aide swallowing. In addition, intubation that may occur following such injuries may impair swallowing function in patients.

Neurogenic diseases, such as Multiple Sclerosis and Parkinson’s, and neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease are also associated with dysphagia. Damage to the central nervous system throughout the progression of the disease can lead to nerve and muscle degeneration causing dysphagia.

In addition to damage to the central nervous pathway, damage to the neuromuscular junction where the nerve and muscle fibers interact, can also cause dysphagia. Such is the case with conditions such as Myasthenia Gravis and polymytositis.

Some medical treatments may cause or exacerbate swallowing disorders. Medications including anesthetics, anti-convulsive drugs, sedatives, neuroleptic medications and corticosteriods have been associated with side-effects including swallowing disorders. If you experience this side-effect, consult your physician.