Understanding Your Body's Swallowing Processes

Understanding Your Body's Swallowing Processes

Swallowing may seem like a simple process, but it’s a complex function. This seemingly easy and natural motion entails a series of events that must take place in a carefully coordinated multi-part process. Any problem along the way can cause trouble swallowing. 

Swallowing disorders affect people of all ages. Here at Southern ENT, our ear, nose, and throat specialists routinely evaluate, diagnose and find solutions for swallowing problems. Read on to learn more about the process of swallowing and what to do if you have problems swallowing.

Phase 1: Oral Preparation

The oral preparation stage begins when food enters the mouth. This process involves combining food with saliva and chewing it into smaller pieces. You manipulate the food into a soft, cohesive clump in preparation for swallowing. 

Phase 2: Oral

The oral phase is when swallowing begins. The food is well-lubricated, and special muscles work together to position the food for swallowing.

The back of your tongue and other muscles move the food into the lower part of your pharynx from the throat. The soft palate rises to block food from entering your nose. 

Phase 3: Pharyngeal

Special sensory neurons activate the involuntary phase of swallowing as the food enters your throat. The swallowing reflex triggers repetitive and involuntary contractions of multiple muscles in the back of your mouth, pharynx, and esophagus to push food farther back into the pharynx and food pipe (esophagus).

Because your mouth and throat function as entryways for both food and air, your mouth provides a pathway for air to enter your windpipe and lungs, as well as a pathway for food to enter your esophagus and stomach.

Your larynx closes and your breathing is momentarily suppressed to prevent food from entering your trachea through the wrong pipe.

Food and other particles that enter your lungs can cause serious infections and irritation of the lung tissue, so the epiglottis closes the larynx to protect the lungs. Food entering your lungs can cause aspiration pneumonia, a type of lung infection. 

Phase 4: Esophageal

Food enters your esophagus as it leaves the pharynx, a tube-like muscular structure with intense coordinated muscular contractions that leads food into the stomach. 

The vagus nerve, the glossopharyngeal nerve, and sympathetic nervous system nerve fibers all work together to help food flow down your esophagus during this phase.

As the food is carried down during swallowing, two key muscles in your esophagus open and close instinctively. Sphincters are muscles that allow the food to move forward while stopping it from flowing in the wrong direction.

The upper and lower esophageal sphincters open in response to the pressure of the food bolus and close once the food bolus has passed.

Your upper esophageal sphincter stops food or saliva from regurgitating back into your mouth, while the lower esophageal sphincter keeps food in your stomach and prevents it from regurgitating into the esophagus. 

The esophageal sphincters act as physical barriers to regurgitated food in this way.

All of these coordinated events must take place for proper swallowing.

Swallowing disorders

Swallowing disorders occur when any of the swallowing phases fails to work properly. It’s possible to have a swallowing disorder and not know it. Some of the symptoms include:

Symptoms partly depend on the phase of your swallowing that is affected. If you have trouble swallowing or notice symptoms that may point to a swallowing disorder, it’s best to see an ear, nose, and throat specialist. 

Call our nearest office to schedule a visit with a Southern ENT provider. Our clinics are located throughout southern Louisiana, in Thibodaux, Houma, Raceland, Morgan City, New Iberia, and Youngsville, Louisiana.

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