Why do I have chewing and swallowing difficulties?

Why do I have chewing and swallowing difficulties?

Eating and drinking is something all of us do regularly throughout the day. We often take for granted the luxury of going out for a meal with family or sharing a snack with friends without lending any consideration to the complex bodily processes that underpin our chewing and swallowing. Experiencing pain when swallowing can therefore be a serious cause for concern, especially when it disrupts our activities of daily living.

Symptoms of swallowing difficulty can range from coughing to vomiting to, in more serious cases, choking. However, there are a number of lifestyle choices you can make that can alleviate swallowing difficulty. Should you find yourself suffering from new swallowing difficulties or notice a deterioration in your swallowing function, however, you should first and foremost seek medical help at the earliest opportunity.

How does swallowing work?
Contrary to what you may believe, the swallowing function is an extremely complex mechanism involving multiple pairs of muscles. The process begins as food enters our mouths and ends once it enters the stomach. Broadly speaking, the process of swallowing can be broken down into three steps; the oral phase, the pharyngeal phase and the oesophageal phase.

The oral phase: this stage involves the chewing of the food, which is then broken down and begins to be pushed towards the back of the throat

The pharyngeal phase: The food “bolus” reaching the back of the throat triggers the first muscle movements of the swallowing response, passing the food through the throat

The oesophageal phase: The food passes through the digestive system and into the stomach.

Signs you may be suffering from swallowing difficulties
Signs that you may be experiencing trouble when swallowing or chewing can range from the relatively mild to the more severe and can affect any of the three phases of swallowing outlined above.

Typically, those suffering from chewing difficulties will experience symptoms during the oral phase, with those suffering from swallowing difficulties experiencing symptoms during the pharyngeal phase

 The NHS lists a number of symptoms you may experience if you have swallowing problems:

  • Pain when chewing or swallowing
  • Coughing
  • Vomiting
  • The feeling of choking

There are several less common symptoms that you may experience if you are suffering from trouble when swallowing, such as a gargling sound when eating or speaking, discomfort around the ears and neck.

What are the causes of chewing or swallowing difficulties?
Difficulty when swallowing can be indicative of a much more serious underlying issues which would need to be diagnosed by a medical professional. NHS cites that common underlaying conditions can include acute causes such as head injuries, or chronic conditions. Gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GORD) may also be a cause of swallowing difficulty.

If you notice any new or deteriorating swallowing function, you must contact a medical professional at the earliest opportunity, whether this be via your GP or a walk-in centre. Alternatively, you can call the NHS helpline on 111.

Trouble when swallowing can arise for a number of reasons, however some of them may not necessarily be related to the more serious, medical conditions outlined above. Swallowing difficulty may be caused by such things as excess alcohol, general fatigue, undiagnosed mental health issues and even anxiety.

In terms of chewing, ill-fitting dentures or fatigue can cause issues, so you may find you struggle to eat effectively.

How can you manage chewing and swallowing difficulties at home?
As swallowing difficulties can be indicative of more serious underlying issues, professional medical attention should be sought if you believe you may be experiencing new or worsening swallowing difficulties, however if your trouble when swallowing is caused by a non-medical issue, there are a number of changes you can make in your day-to-day activity that may alleviate your symptoms.

Lifestyle changes
You may find making lifestyle changes offers a complementary and holistic approach to self-care, especially where your chewing or swallowing dysfunction is not caused by an underlying medical condition.

There are several lifestyle changes you can make that may improve issues with chewing and swallowing:

  • Follow a regular sleep routine and pattern
  • Introduce relaxation techniques throughout your day to reduce stress and anxiety
  • Exercise regularly to improve both your physical and mental wellbeing

Dietary changes
As well as lifestyle changes, there are several dietary changes you may be able to make at home that may help if you are suffering from trouble when chewing and/or swallowing:

  • Chewing food more thoroughly
  • Choosing softer foods
  • Avoiding tough and stringy foods
  • Avoiding alcohol during mealtimes

 Convenient mealtimes
If you find it difficult to chew or swallow regular food products, it can be frustrating and feel restrictive.

If you’re on-the-go, you can get a nutrition fix from Abbot’s nutritional drinks, which provide an easy way of fuelling when you’re in a hurry