What causes it and who is most affected?

What causes it and who is most affected?


What causes it?1

There are two main types of dysphagia. One is due to problems in the mouth or throat (oropharyngeal dysphagia) and the other is due to problems in the gullet, the tube leading from the throat to the stomach (oesophageal dysphagia).

In some cases, dysphagia occurs for no obvious reason. However, it is typically caused by an underlying illness or condition.2 Causes include:1

Damage to the nervous system

  • Problems in the brain and spinal cord can interfere with the nerves controlling swallowing.
  • Conditions can include Stroke, Parkinson’s disease, Multiple sclerosis, Dementia, Motor neurone disease and Brain tumours.


  • Obstruction in the throat can make swallowing difficult.

  • Can be caused by Mouth or throat cancer, Damage to the gullet from an allergic reaction to food, Acid reflux (heartburn), Radiotherapy treatment or Infections like tuberculosis or thrush.

Congenital or Developmental Conditions

  • Congenital means something you are born with.

  • Developmental conditions affect how you develop.

  • Conditions that may cause dysphagia include Learning disability, Cerebral palsy (affects movement and co-ordination) and Cleft lip and palate.

Muscular Conditions

  • Any condition that affects muscles that push food down the gullet can cause dysphagia.

  • Scleroderma (the body’s own defence system attacks muscles in the throat) is rare.

  • Achalasia (where muscles in the gullet fail to function properly) is also rare.

Other causes

  • The muscles used for swallowing become weaker with age.
  • Some lung conditions can make it difficult to breathe properly and affect the ability to swallow.

  • Many drugs prescribed to treat depression, high blood pressure and anxiety, as well as some antihistamines, decongestants, muscle relaxants and pain medications may make swallowing difficult3

Who is most affected?

Older People

An estimated 50-75% of care home residents have some difficulty swallowing4

Stroke Survivors

Dysphagia affects over 50% of survivors immediately after a stroke5

Dementia in care homes

68% of those with dementia in care homes show signs of dysphagia4

Motor Neurone Disease

As the disease progresses, dysphagia occurs in more than 80% of people living with it4


Dysphagia occurs in over 50% of patients with head and neck cancer6


Around 27% of people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease will experience dysphagia4

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  1. NHS. Causes. Dysphagia (swallowing problems).
    Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/swallowing-problems-dysphagia/causes/
    Accessed 28 February 2022.
  2. NHS. Overview. Dysphagia (swallowing problems).
    Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/swallowing-problems-dysphagia/
    Accessed 28 February 2022.
  3. Mayo Clinic. Dry Mouth.
    Available at: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/dry-mouth/symptoms-causes/syc-20356048
    Accessed 28 February 2022.
  4. Holdoway A, Smith A. Malnutrition Pathway. Dysphagia.
    Available at: https://www.malnutritionpathway.co.uk/dysphagia.pdf
    Accessed 28 February 2022.
  5. Gonzalez-Fernandez M, et al. Dysphagia after Stroke: an Overview. Curr Phys Med Rehabil Rep Sept 2013; 1(3): 187-196
  6. Garcia-Peris P, et al. Long-term prevalence of oropharyngeal dysphagia in head and neck cancer patients:
    impact on quality of life. Clin Nutr. 2007 Dec;26(6):710-7.