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Dysphagia is when someone experiences difficulties with swallowing that can be uncomfortable and lead to other health problems. A person may experience dysphagia as a symptom of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).

GERD is a condition where stomach acid flows upward into the esophagus. Scientists remain unsure about exactly why GERD leads to swallowing difficulties. When it does, treatment tends to focus on lifestyle changes, which may improve the symptoms of GERD.

This article discusses GERD and its connection to dysphagia in more detail. It also explores the symptoms and potential complications of dysphagia and examines common treatment options for GERD and dysphagia.

GERD is a relative common condition that affects around 20% of adults in Western cultures. In the United States, between 18.1% and 27.8% of adults have GERD.

However, the actual percentage may be higher, as many people may have undiagnosed GERD. A person may use over-the-counter antacid medications, which are widely available in the US, to treat GERD symptoms without knowing they have the condition.

When an individual has GERD, some of their stomach contents flow upward into the esophagus. These contents may include stomach acid alongside some food, which may be in different states of digestion.

As a 2021 review explains, this upward flow of stomach contents frequently leads to symptoms such as heartburn and regurgitation. Less commonly, GERD may cause the following symptoms:

Learn more about the differences between heartburn, acid reflux, and GERD here.

There is plenty of evidence that people with GERD experience dysphagia, which is a difficulty in swallowing.

Some scientists estimate that around 18% of people with GERD have infrequent dysphagia, and 31.6% have frequent dysphagia. A more recent study from 2020 suggests that at least 48% of people with GERD symptoms will experience dysphagia.

As the 2020 study also notes, scientists remain uncertain about the exact nature of the relationship between GERD and dysphagia. One possibility is that GERD causes dysphagia. Scientists have several theories about how this process might work:

  • Upper esophageal sphincter (UES) dysfunction: The UES is a part of the esophagus that opens and closes during swallowing. GERD may affect this opening process in various ways, causing dysphagia. For example, the UES remains open for longer while swallowing in people with GERD. This means that food and water may take longer to travel down the esophagus.
  • Hypersensitivity to stomach acid: Some people with GERD may be hypersensitive to the stomach acid that flows upward into the esophagus. These individuals could therefore become hyper-aware of swallowed food and water. They may also develop anxiety, stress, and hypervigilance due to their sensitivity to stomach acid. Therefore, this condition may be partly psychological.
  • Esophageal dysmotility: The process by which GERD causes stomach contents to enter the esophagus might simply interrupt the act of swallowing. Doctors refer to this as esophageal dysmotility. For example, stomach contents, such as stomach acid, may sometimes block food or water that was on its way down the esophagus.
  • Esophageal narrowing or stricture: Chronic GERD causes inflammation of the esophagus, which can lead to scarring of the tissue. This may result in narrowing or strictures.

People with GERD may have dysphagia for a number of different reasons. Although researchers have suggested some potential explanations, more research is necessary to determine why dysphagia is a symptom of GERD.

Dysphagia is a relatively common symptom of GERD. Symptoms of dysphagia include:

  • eating meals more slowly
  • feeling like food is stuck in the throat or mid-chest
  • choking and coughing
  • throat clearance during or after meals
  • weight loss
  • frequent lung infections
  • changes in diet, with a preference for liquids and semisolid foods
  • neurological changes

Many people with dysphagia experience an uncomfortable sensation of being unable to swallow, although this does not affect all people with this swallowing impairment.

Dysphagia can lead to further health problems, such as:

scientists suggest that healthcare professionals should treat the underlying condition of people with dysphagia. With GERD and dysphagia, swallowing difficulties could improve if healthcare professionals successfully treat the GERD.

According to a 2021 itemthere are four main types of treatment for GERD:

  • Lifestyle changes: These could involve losing excess weight if necessary or maintaining a moderate weight. Appropriate lifestyle changes may also involve maintaining good sleep hygiene and eating no later than 3 hours before sleep
  • Medical therapy: Doctors may recommend various medications for people who do not respond well to lifestyle changes. These could include antacid agents, which neutralize stomach acid. There is evidence that drugs called proton pump inhibitors are the most effective GERD medications.
  • Endoscopy: healthcare professionals may use Esophagogastroduodenoscopy (EGD) to diagnose GERD and dysphagia. At the time of EGD, they can also perform dilation, which involves gentle stretching of the esophagus to assist with relieving dysphagia.
  • Surgery: In rare cases, such as when an individual cannot tolerate GERD medications, doctors may recommend surgical interventions. However, the effectiveness of surgery is unclear, and there is a risk of serious complications.

Scientists remain uncertain whether cutting out certain foods from a person’s diet can improve GERD.

Dysphagia is a common symptom of GERD. Scientists remain unsure why GERD causes dysphagia, although many different mechanisms are possible.

Dysphagia resulting from GERD can be uncomfortable and cause further health problems. However, there is a range of treatment options for GERD that may reduce dysphagia.

A person should consider speaking with a doctor if they think they have GERD or are experiencing dysphagia frequently.

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