Definition

Swallowing pain is any pain or discomfort while swallowing. You may feel it high in the neck or lower down behind the breastbone. Most often, the pain feels like a strong sensation of squeezing or burning. Swallowing pain may be a symptom of a serious disorder.

Alternative Names

Swallowing - pain or burning; Odynophagia; Burning feeling when swallowing

Considerations

Swallowing involves many nerves and muscles in the mouth, throat area, and esophagus (the tube that moves food to the stomach). Part of swallowing is voluntary, which means you are aware of controlling the action. However, much of swallowing is involuntary.

Swallowing

From a side view of the head, this animation shows the step-by-step process and mechanism of chewing and swallowing a piece of celery.

Problems at any point in the swallowing process (including chewing, moving food to the back of the mouth, or moving it to the stomach) can result in painful swallowing.

Swallowing problems can cause symptoms such as:

  • Chest pain
  • Feeling of food stuck in the throat
  • Heaviness or pressure in the neck or upper chest while eating

Causes

Swallowing problems may be due to infections, such as:

  • Cytomegalovirus
  • Gum disease (gingivitis)
  • Herpes simplex virus
  • Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)
  • Pharyngitis (sore throat)
  • Thrush

Swallowing problems may be due to a problem with the esophagus, such as:

  • Achalasia
  • Esophageal spasms
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease
  • Inflammation of the esophagus
  • Nutcracker esophagus
  • Ulcer in the esophagus, especially due to the antibiotic doxycycline

Other causes of swallowing problems include:

  • Mouth or throat ulcers
  • Something stuck in the throat (for example, fish or chicken bones)
  • Tooth infection or abscess

Home Care

To ease swallowing pain:

  • Eat slowly and chew food well.
  • Eat pureed foods or liquids if solid foods are hard to swallow.
  • Avoid very cold or very hot foods if they make your symptoms worse.

If someone is choking, immediately perform the Heimlich maneuver.

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Call your health care provider if you have painful swallowing and:

  • Blood in your stools or your stools appear black or tarry
  • Shortness of breath or lightheadedness
  • Weight loss

Tell your provider about any other symptoms that occur with the painful swallowing, including:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Chills
  • Cough
  • Fever
  • Heartburn
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Sour taste in the mouth
  • Wheezing

What to Expect at Your Office Visit

The provider will examine you and ask questions about your medical history and symptoms, including:

  • Do you have pain when swallowing solids, liquids, or both?
  • Is the pain constant or does it come and go?
  • Is the pain getting worse?
  • Do you have difficulty swallowing?
  • Do you have a sore throat?
  • Does it feel like there is a lump in your throat?
  • Have you inhaled or swallowed any irritating substances?
  • What other symptoms do you have?
  • What other health problems do you have?
  • What medicines do you take?

The following tests may be done:

  • Barium swallow and upper GI series
  • Chest x-ray
  • Esophageal pH monitoring (measures acid in the esophagus)
  • Esophageal manometry (measures pressure in the esophagus)
  • Esophagogastroduodenoscopy (EGD)
  • HIV testing
  • Neck x-ray
  • Throat culture

References

Falk GW, Katzka DA. Diseases of the esophagus. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman's Cecil Medicine. 25th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2016:chap 138.

Kahrilas PJ, Pandolfino JE. Esophageal neuromuscular function and motility disorders. In: Feldman M, Friedman LS, Brandt LJ, eds. Sleisenger & Fordtran's Gastrointestinal and Liver Disease. 10th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2016:chap 43.

Version Info

  • Last reviewed on 8/14/2015
  • Subodh K. Lal, MD, gastroenterologist at Gastrointestinal Specialists of Georgia, Austell, GA. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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