Speaking, breathing and eating are related functions in that they all use the throat in their operation. You can have an issue with one of those functions without having it affect the other functions, or you can have a disorder that affects all or some the functions. Difficulty breathing is a symptom that can be the result of a voice, swallowing or airway disorder, including:

  • Aspiration (breathing in food due to loss of muscle control from stroke, for instance)
  • Decreased sensation in throat from malignancy
  • Growth of tissue mass
  • Neurological dysfunction from ALS, Parkinson’s, myasthenia gravis or other disorder
  • Physical abnormality, like esophageal narrowing, that’s inherited or caused by trauma
  • Scarring from injury or surgery

Swallowing disorders that lead to shortness of breath can include:

  • Vocal paralysis
  • Zenker’s diverticulum (a pouch formation in the base of the throat where food and liquid collect)

Most swallowing problems occur because of age-related issues. In fact, more than 50 percent of seniors have some form of swallowing dysfunction because of decreased sensitivity and muscle control/strength in the throat.

Difficulty breathing may also be the result of airway obstruction because of trachea or vocal cord scarring from infection, injury or previous surgery or procedure, malformation you were born with or abnormal tissue growth.


Before the proper treatment can be prescribed, the cause of the condition must first be diagnosed. There are a number of tests to help determine the cause of a swallowing disorder. A review of medical history almost always comes first.

Here are some possible tests and treatments available to you at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center:

  • Fiberoptic endoscopic evaluation of swallowing (FEES) – examination of the throat with a scope while eating and drinking to assess swallow function
  • Flexible laryngoscopy – examination of the throat with a telescope
  • Esophagram – examination of the integrity of the throat and esophagus while swallowing contrast barium fluid that produces images of the affected area
  • Imaging, including MRI or CT scan
  • Modified barium swallow – a speech pathologist assists to observe swallowing while patient eats different foods coated with barium


Treatment is tailored to each patient based on the results of testing. Often, most issues can be corrected through diet modification and swallow therapy. More serious conditions can be treated accordingly:

  • Feeding tube insertion may be required for serious aspiration problems until the cause is addressed
  • Surgery can be required to remove abnormal tissue growth, dilate constriction of the esophagus or to remove the pouch in Zenker’s diverticulum patients
  • Tracheostomy tube (a tube placed in the trachea to allow proper breathing) may be temporarily inserted to bypass an obstruction until the underlying problem is corrected

Why Choose Ohio State?

Comprehensive care: We have the only Voice and Swallowing Clinic in central Ohio that offers a comprehensive range of care. Even our nurses are specially trained to care for patients with specific breathing and swallowing disorders. Our physicians – surgeons, neurologists and speech pathologists – work together to manage conditions and optimize outcomes for patients.

Specialty training: Our physicians who specialize in breathing and swallowing disorders are highly trained fellowship surgeons. These specialists receive training above the level most ENT specialists receive in voice, airway and swallowing disorders. Half of the fellowship specialists in all of Ohio can be found here at Ohio State's Wexner Medical Center.

Nationally ranked: Wexner Medical Center is recognized by U.S.News & World Report one of the nation’s best hospitals for care of the ear, nose and throat.

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