Dysphagia simply means “difficulty swallowing,” but sufferers say that description doesn’t even scratch the surface of what it feels like to have this super-common yet rarely discussed condition.
“For me, it feels like something is chronically stuck in my throat,” says Krista Siddiqui, a mom of four in Minnesota. “And sometimes food, rice especially, actually will get stuck. It gets totally blocked, so much so that I can’t even swallow my own spit and have to spit in the sink.”
Nobody knows exactly how many people live with this condition, partly because it is a listed symptom for over 100 known illnesses and conditions. Everything from vitamin deficiencies to thyroid disease to cancer to heartburn can cause the uncomfortable sensation of not being able to swallow. But experts say the most common cause by far is something a little more familiar: anxiety.
“I saw several doctors, and was finally diagnosed with esophagitis [inflammation of the tube that carries food to the stomach],” Siddiqui says. “They don’t know what causes it and there really isn’t any cure.”
Like many sufferers of dysphagia, her condition is made worse during times of stress. “When we were trying to sell our house, move, buy a new house and I was starting a new job, it got so bad that the pain kept me up every night. I couldn’t sleep or even lay down. The only thing that would stop the spasms was to pace for hours.”
The psychological aspect can make it a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts. You have a hard time swallowing, you panic, you get worried about not being able to swallow in the future, which in turn makes you more anxious, which then makes it even harder to “just swallow.” It’s been described as a feeling similar to a panic attack — but in the throat.
“If I think about it, it will definitely happen, but if I ignore it and try to focus on other things sometimes I can stave off an attack,” Siddiqui says.
In the meantime, she goes about her daily routine — working, being a mom and a wife — and just tries to keep her stress levels down.
Steroids are one common treatment as the drug reduces inflammation, but there isn’t one pill or treatment that works for everyone. Because there are so many potential causes, the treatments are often a patchwork of anti-anxiety drugs, meditation, stress management therapy, muscle relaxants, home therapies and others.
Siddiqui recently started an oral steroid to help with acute attacks and says she thinks it’s helping. “I’m hopeful?” she says cautiously. “And that’s always a good thing.”