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Causes of Swallowing Disorders

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Roughly, 18 million Americans have soreness or difficulty while swallowing.

Severe swallowing disorders require long-term rehabilitation or surgery. Mild swallowing problems — although easier to treat — still may affect your quality of life.

At the UPMC Swallowing Disorders Center, we treat both severe and mild swallowing conditions.

Risks of Untreated Swallowing Disorders

If dysphagia — the medical term for swallowing issues — goes untreated, it may lead to severe problems such as:

  • Aspiration pneumonia — an infection that may result from food or liquid entering the lungs
  • Chronic bronchitis
  • Dehydration
  • Malnutrition
  • Pulmonary fibrosis

Causes of Swallowing Disorders and Nutrition Issues

Swallowing disorders and related nutrition issues can be the result of:

Side effects of medical treatments

  • Combined chemo and radiation therapy
  • Radiotherapy
  • Surgical changes to the anatomy


  • Cervical spine surgery
  • Mouth and throat surgery
  • Thyroid surgery
  • Tracheostomy

Certain medical conditions

  • Cerebrovascular accident (CVA or stroke)
  • Dry mouth (xerostomia)
  • Gastroesophageal reflux (GERD)
  • Head and neck cancers
  • Trauma to the head and neck
  • Vocal cord paralysis

Chronic nervous system disorders

  • ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or Lou Gehrig’s disease)
  • Multiple sclerosis (MS)
  • Myasthenia gravis
  • Parkinson’s disease

Autoimmune disorders

  • Myositis
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Scleroderma


  • Deconditioning
  • Dementia
  • Generalized weakness
  • Loss of muscle mass

Swallowing and Nutrition Concerns During Radiation Treatment

If you have concerns about swallowing and nutrition during radiation therapy for head or neck cancer, please see:

Make an Appointment at the Swallowing Disorders Center

To make an appointment or learn more about treatment, call 412-647-6461 or email the UPMC Swallowing Disorders Center.

Learn what to expect at your first visit to the Swallowing Disorders Center.

Learn More About Causes of Swallowing Disorders

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