NEWS2U Health & Wellness
Living Healthy in an Unhealthy World

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Holiday feasting highlights swallowing problems
By Anne Harding

The number of people who see a doctor about problems with swallowing climbs during the holidays, a leading chest surgeon says.

"We tend to see this time of year a higher incidence of people coming in with both serious and non-serious causes of swallowing disorder," Dr. Joel Cooper of the University of Pennsylvania Health System told Reuters Health.

The holidays are a time for feasting with the family, Cooper notes, and friends or relatives may observe that a loved one is having trouble swallowing. Cooper said he has even seen patients who suffer silently for months, and lose up to 25 pounds because they are having so much difficulty eating.

"If you or your loved one is having some difficulty or some symptoms when swallowing, don't ignore it, have it investigated," Cooper says.

In the great majority of cases, he adds, the problem will be due to a benign cause, for example scarring due to gastroesophageal reflux or a hiatal hernia, in which the muscle closing off the stomach from the esophagus doesn't work properly. In both of these cases, avoiding cigarettes and alcohol, losing weight, and taking certain medications can be helpful, he adds.

Other causes of swallowing difficulties can include achalasia, a rare disorder in which the muscles of the esophagus are weakened, or esophageal diverticulitis, in which pockets along the side of the esophagus trap pieces of food.

Usually if a person's problems are intermittent, Cooper notes, the cause is benign, but if they are constant and progressive, they may signal a tumor.

"If you have a swallowing disorder, you should have it evaluated by a specialist," Cooper advises. Most of the time, the cause will be benign and treatable, he adds, and if a tumor is causing the problem, the earlier it is diagnosed and treated the better the outcome will be.

SOURCE: University of Pennsylvania Health System