Food, once swallowed, is quickly transported down the throat, into the esophagus and pushed into the stomach. Most of the time a person is unable to experience the movement of food from the pharynx. These visceral sensations are purposely dulled as is the case with movement through most of the gut. Sometimes there is the feeling of food being stuck in the throat (head and neck region) or lower down in the esophagus (chest region). It can be nothing more than a sensation despite the food having passed down in to the stomach as normal – sometimes imagined while at other times it is due to irritation in the throat or esophagus. However, there are instances where food is trapped either partially or completely due to a problem with swallowing or the normal passage of food.
Normal Movement in Throat and Esophagus
Food is first broken down by the process of chewing (mastication), then rolled into a ball and pushed into the back of the throat. The swallowing process (deglutition) ensures that this ball of food is propelled from the throat, down the esophagus and into the stomach. Swallowing is therefore divided into three phases :
- Oral (mouth) swallowing
- Pharyngeal (throat) swallowing
- Esophageal (food pipe) swallowing
The first stage, the oral stage, is under voluntarily control while the latter two are involuntarily. Once food is voluntarily swallowed, the process whereby the muscles contract and relax to form waves continues in the throat and then esophagus. This peristaltic wave ensures that food is rapidly passed down the esophagus.
Reasons for Food Stuck Sensation
There are three possible reasons for the sensation of food being stuck in the throat or esophagus.
- The sensation is imagined or the throat or esophagus is irritated by the food despite it having passed through unobstructed.
- The food or remnants of food are stuck in the throat or esophagus either by getting trapped in crevices or pouches or by tumors and narrowing in the gut.
- The swallowing process is dysfunctional for some reason therefore the movement of food may be interrupted at some point.
The sensation of food trapped within the throat or esophagus is a symptom of some underlying problem. It is may be accompanied by one or more of the following symptoms although it is often a symptom on its own :
- Painful swallowing (odynophagia)
- Regurgitation (not vomiting)
- Increased thirst
- Loss of appetite
Irritation and Inflammation
There are several different conditions of the the throat and esophagus which is marked by inflammation that is worsened or accentuated with the chewing and the movement of food. This can be interpreted as food being stuck in the throat when it is not. Some of the common causes includes :
- Pharyngitis (throat inflammation, sore throat) is most often due to an infections, particularly with bacteria or viruses. The swelling of the throat and constant irritation or pain is worsened when swallowing particularly hard or hot foods.
- Tonsillitis is associated with pharyngitis most of the time. Here as well the sensation of the throat being sore is worsened with swallowing food. In addition, small particles of food may be trapped within the crevasses of the tonsils. In chronic tonsillitis, ulceration may allow small particles of food to be trapped within holes in the tonsils. When coughed up, it looks like small specks of rice.
- Esophagitis is the inflammation of the esophagus. A common cause of esophagitis are due to reflux of the acidic stomach contents. Persistent esophagitis can lead to the formation of growths, ulcers and even strictures (narrowing).
Any structural defect in the throat and esophagus may impede the normal movement of food during swallowing. Sometimes this is only a partial obstruction. Certain defects may also allow food to be trapped within it.
- Tumors are abnormalities in tissue growth which can be benign or malignant (cancerous). Throat cancer and esophageal cancer are often asymptomatic at the outset but eventually present with symptoms like pain, bleeding and loss of weight. Benign tumors often grow slowly in size causing the obstruction to worsen over time.
- Narrowing is most prominent in the esophagus. This is known as esophageal strictures. It can arise with many of the conditions already discussed including esophagitis and cancer. Esophageal webs and rings are an extension of normal tissue of the esophagus thereby causing a localized narrowing of the esophagus.
- Pouches in the throat and esophagus, also known as diverticula, are protrusions in the wall where food may accumulate. However, it is largely asymptomatic and more likely to cause a problem with swallowing as discussed below. The most common type of pouch is a Zenker diverticulum.
- Tonsil stones are calcified masses that grow within the tonsillar crypts or crevasses. These stones are often small and do not cause any significant symptoms on its own. It is usually when the surrounding tonsillar tissue is inflamed that the symptoms become more evident.
Swallowing is a carefully coordinate process involving the muscles in the wall of the throat and esophagus as well as the nerves supplying it. Any swallowing problem where there is no obstruction, growth or narrowing will affect either the muscles, the nerves or both structures. The medical term for difficulty swallowing is dysphagia.
- When the difficulty swallowing is due to a problem in the mouth and throat then it is known as oropharyngeal dysphagia.
- When the difficulty lies in a problem with the esophagus then it is known as esophageal dysphagia.
There is no specific treatment for the sensation of food stuck in the throat or esophagus. It is important to have it assessed by a medical professionals as soon as possible to identify the exact cause. Treatment will then be directed at the causative condition thereby allaying the symptom over time. Some measures that may prove helpful although medical attention is still necessary includes :
- Drinking water before, during and after meals.
- Eating small bites of food.
- Chewing throughly before swallowing.
- Avoid talking while eating.
- Eat slowly.
- Walk, stand and sit upright for at least 30 minutes after eating.
Article reviewed by Dr. Greg. Last updated on April 9, 2012