Having Trouble Swallowing Food? You May Need Esophageal Dilation

Posted on: 30 June 2020

If you are having trouble swallowing your food when eating, you may be suffering from dysphagia—the medical term for swallowing difficulties. People with dysphagia may cough or choke when eating, have food come back up—sometimes through the nose, have excess saliva, or have a sensation that food is stuck in chest or throat. Take a look at what causes dysphagia and how general surgery, like esophageal dilation, can help.

Why Are You Having Trouble Swallowing Food?

You'll want to visit your doctor to get a diagnosis for your dysphagia since it can have many causes. For instance, if you suffer from heartburn (acid reflux), then your esophagus (the tube that carries foods and liquids to your stomach) could actually have narrowed from acids scarring the tissue. Some people naturally have narrow esophaguses and may develop thin layers of excess tissue which can make swallowing difficult. Other conditions that can cause dysphagia include:

  • head injuries

  • dementia

  • oral or esophageal cancer

If you've been treated for cancer already, you can still have dysphagia since radiation treatment can leave scar tissue. In short, because there are many possible root causes, it's important to get a proper diagnosis from your doctor.

What is Esophageal Dilation?

If there is no underlying disease that needs to be treated, just excess scar tissue or a narrow windpipe, your doctor may recommend that you undergo esophageal dilation. This is a surgery where the tissue in your esophagus is stretched out.

There are three approaches for esophageal dilation:

  1. Balloon Dilators: During this surgery, a surgeon inserts an endoscope (a slender tube-like instrument with a camera) down the throat and inflates a balloon-like apparatus to stretch out the tissue

  2. Wire-Guided Dilators: During this surgery, a doctor places plastic rings over a guidewire which will then be expanded to stretch out the tissues in the throat

  3. Weighted Dilators: During this surgery, a doctor will use spherical metal weights that increase sequentially in size to expand the area of obstruction.

If esophageal dilation doesn't help the dysphagia, your doctor may consider a Uvulopalatopharyngoplasty. This is a surgery where excess throat tissue is removed and/or remodeled; besides helping dysphagia it can help conditions like sleep apnea.

What is Recovery Like After Esophageal Dilation Surgery?

The general surgeon will go over which medications you cannot take beforehand and when you need to fast for surgery. You'll be sedated during the procedure, so you'll need someone to drive you home afterward. For minor dysphagia symptoms, some doctors may actually use a local anesthetic, so in that case, you'd be able to drive yourself home.

During recovery, you may have a tender lump on the outside of your throat where the anesthetic was injected. Your throat will also be sore but should improve as you heal. Your surgeon will give you instructions on when you can eat. Usually, fluids are off-limits for a while so that you don't aspirate liquids while the anesthetic is still affecting your swallowing functions. During recovery, your surgeon may also have you eat soft foods until your throat feels better.

Contact a general surgeon in your area for more information regarding this procedure, your aftercare instructions, or alternative solutions.