When food becomes stuck in the esophagus (the food tube), it is called food impaction. One reason food may become impacted is that it is swallowed before it is chewed well. Another cause is when the muscles in the esophagus aren’t working as well as they should, such as from a disease, condition, or injury.
What Is Food Impaction?
Food impaction is common and is usually very treatable. However, it can be an emergency. In some cases it can be fatal, so seeking treatment for symptoms is important.
The digestion of food starts in the mouth. Food is broken down by saliva while it is chewed by the teeth. It is then swallowed and enters the esophagus.
Food travels down the esophagus and into the stomach. The muscles inside the esophagus help move food down through it. The movement the muscles inside the esophagus make is called peristalsis. If food gets caught somewhere between the mouth and the stomach, it may become impacted.
Impacted food may prevent other food from being swallowed and going down the esophagus to the stomach.
Food Impaction vs. Dysphagia
Dysphagia is a condition that causes difficulty in swallowing. Food impaction can be a cause of acute (sudden) dysphagia.
Some of the causes of dysphagia include:
- Allergies: Allergic reactions that cause difficulty swallowing (uncommon)
- Diffuse spasm: Spasms in the esophagus that can lead to problems swallowing
- Foreign object: Something caught in the throat that may cause temporary swelling
- Functional esophageal disorders: Problems with the esophagus that are caused by a structural problem
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD): Stomach acid flowing back into the esophagus causing inflammation and narrowing
- Opioid-induced esophageal dysfunction: Pain medications that include opioids may have an effect on the muscles in the esophagus
- Tumors (rarely)
Symptoms of dysphagia can include:
- A buildup of mucus in the esophagus
- Chest pain
- Food impaction
- Tightness in the throat
- Weight loss (from avoiding food)
Who’s at Risk?
Food impaction is more common in older adults, especially over the age of 70. However, it can also occur in younger people who have conditions that affect the throat, such as eosinophilic esophagitis.
The risk factors for food impaction include:
- Abnormalities in the esophagus: Problems with the structure or muscles of the esophagus
- Eosinophilic esophagitis: An inflammatory condition that can cause swelling
- Peptic strictures: Chronic reflux disease that causes a narrowing of the esophagus
- Schatzki rings:Mucosal rings that form in the lower esophagus
When to See a Healthcare Provider
In some cases, having a food impaction is a reason to see a healthcare provider. Food getting caught in the esophagus can be an emergency.
Some of the symptoms indicating food is lodged in the esophagus are:
- A feeling of something stuck in your throat
- Choking after eating
- Trouble breathing
- Vomiting after eating
A food impaction can be an emergency. Seek care immediately for any of these symptoms:
- Difficulty breathing or noisy breathing
- Inability to talk
- Losing consciousness
- Turning pale or bluish
Diagnosing Food Impaction
A diagnosis of food impaction may involve a few steps. First, there will be a medical history taken, and your healthcare provider will need to know your symptoms, when they started, and what was the last thing that you ate.
They will also need to know if there are any diseases or conditions of the esophagus that could be contributing to an impaction. An X-ray may be done. This can be used to locate where the food is in the esophagus and its size.
An endoscopy, in which a thin tube is inserted through the mouth and down into the esophagus, may also be used to diagnose as well as treat the impaction.
There are a few treatment options for food impaction. The healthcare provider will help in making a decision about which option to use.
Medication: Some drugs can help relax the muscles in the esophagus. If the muscles are relaxed enough, the food could start to move down the esophagus and into the stomach.
Drugs such as butylscopolamine, glucagon, calcium channel blockers, benzodiazepines, and nitrates are all used to treat food impaction. Medications might be less successful in people who have a physical reason for the impaction, such as a narrowed esophagus.
Endoscopy: Impacted food may need to be removed with a procedure if it’s thought that it might not move with the administration of medications.
During an endoscopy, the endoscope can either push the food further down into the stomach or pull it out through the mouth. Food that’s further down in the esophagus might be pushed down, while food that’s stuck further up may be pulled out.
Between 10% and 20% of cases of food impaction in the emergency room might need to be treated with endoscopy.
There have been cases of food impaction that have been treated with cola. It has been used alone or with a drug called Creon (pancrelipase).
This might be done when endoscopy isn’t available or if medications or an endoscopy can’t be used. This includes areas of the world in which fewer resources are available for emergency care.
It’s not currently recommended for regular use because it may have more side effects than endoscopy, so it should only be used with the help of a healthcare professional. This method may also take several hours to days to help loosen the food and clear it.
Preventing Food Impaction
Food impaction can happen to anyone. It occurs more often during holidays, such as Thanksgiving. It’s recommended that people at higher risk avoid eating a big meal and drinking alcohol on holidays or during other celebrations.
Participating in speed-eating competitions may also increase the risk of food impaction. It’s recommended to avoid these events.
For those who have a condition that may affect the esophagus, such as GERD, eosinophilic esophagitis, or Schatzki ring, it’s important to talk about the risk of a food impaction with a healthcare provider. Treating any underlying conditions to keep inflammation under control and avoid scar tissue or strictures in the esophagus is key.
How Much to Chew
Chewing food well may help in avoiding food impaction. Digestion begins in the mouth. Enzymes in the saliva break down food while it’s being chewed. Chewing food well and taking time to eat slowly is important.
Some of the ways to avoid impacted food include:
- Avoiding eating while lying down
- Chewing food thoroughly
- Having something to drink with meals
- Eating smaller meals
- Making sure that any dentures or other dental implants are well fitted
- Taking smaller bites of food
People who have conditions that impact their mouth or esophagus should talk with a healthcare provider about their needs. For some people, changes to diet may be needed to avoid impaction. This includes eating softer foods that are more easily swallowed.
Food impaction in the esophagus is a common problem that can be an emergency. Meats and bones are common causes of food impaction incidents. If the food doesn’t pass on its own, medications may help. For some cases, removing food through an endoscopy procedure is needed.
A Word From Verywell
Having impacted food in the esophagus can be scary and uncomfortable. It can happen in older adults, but younger people may also have an impaction, especially around holidays and other events during which big meals are eaten. Taking care while eating, chewing well, and drinking liquids may all help in avoiding food getting stuck.
Frequently Asked Questions
Does the Heimlich maneuver help with food impaction?
No. The Heimlich maneuver is used to dislodge something in the throat (pharynx, where both food and air pass to the esophagus and larynx respectively) that’s causing a person to choke.
Choking is a medical emergency because something is lodged in the windpipe and a person cannot breathe.
The Heimlich maneuver forces air up through the windpipe to force the object out. Food that’s caught in the esophagus can’t be dislodged this way.(Video) Implant Restorative Design to Avoid Food Impaction
What can you do to treat food impaction at home?
Food impaction in which a person can breathe is not always an emergency. Forceful coughing, drinking water, or drinking some cola may help dislodge food.
However, if the food is not moving, it’s preventing eating, there is pain, or there is difficulty breathing, it should be treated right away by a healthcare professional.
What are the symptoms of food impaction in babies?
Babies may drool, gag, spit up or vomit if they have a food impaction. They may also refuse to eat and if they have pain or discomfort in their chest or neck, they may cry.(Video) What causes food impaction?-Dr. Sowmya Vijapure
How serious is food impaction?
Food impaction is not always serious. In some cases, it may resolve on its own. However, it can be an emergency if it’s causing a problem with breathing or if something like a sharp bone has become stuck.
It’s important to seek care if there’s a persistent feeling of something caught in the throat and/or there are other symptoms of a food impaction.
What does food impaction feel like?
A food impaction might feel like something is stuck in the throat. Sometimes a throat irritation can feel that way for a little while but a food impaction will feel more persistent and last longer than an hour or so.
It is uncomfortable and may even be painful and will interfere with swallowing. People may also gag, vomit, or drool.(Video) Podcast 747: Food Impaction
How do you deal with food impaction? ›
Small doses of glucagon administered intravenously can be given to patients who are under evaluation for management of a food bolus impaction. This may help to relax the esophagus and allow spontaneous passage. However, it should not delay definitive investigation and management by endoscopy.What is the most common cause of food impaction? ›
SB Although any type of food can become stuck in the esophagus, in the adult population, structural diseases or abnormalities of the esophagus, specifically eosinophilic esophagitis, are the main causes of food impactions. Eosinophilic esophagitis causes solid food to become stuck in the esophagus intermittently.How do you know if you have a food impaction? ›
Signs and symptoms
People with food bolus obstruction typically display acute dysphagia (difficulty swallowing), often to the point that they cannot even swallow their saliva, leading to drooling. They may also experience chest pain, neck pain, regurgitation of food, or painful swallowing (odynophagia).
Food impaction is not always serious. In some cases, it may resolve on its own. However, it can be an emergency if it's causing a problem with breathing or if something like a sharp bone has become stuck.How common is food impaction? ›
Esophageal food impaction (EFI) is the third most common non-biliary emergency in gastroenterology, with an annual incidence rate of 13 episodes per 100,000 person-years and 1,500 deaths per year. Patients presenting with food impaction often have underlying esophageal pathology.What meds are used for food impaction? ›
Pharmacologic agents are often used prior to endoscopy in patients with esophageal soft bolus impaction. Although no one agent is superior to another, butylscopolamine, glucagon, calcium channel blockers (CCBs), benzodiazepines and nitrates are among the current treatment options available.When should you go to the ER for food impaction? ›
If you're unable to swallow your saliva and are experiencing distress, go to your local emergency room as soon as possible. If you're not in distress but the food is still stuck, you can have an endoscopic procedure to remove the food within 24 hours . After that, there's risk of damage to the lining of your esophagus.Can food stay stuck in your esophagus? ›
Sometimes, however, food get can stuck in the esophagus, creating an uncomfortable sensation in the throat or chest. At other times, the epiglottis does not close sufficiently during swallowing, which allows food to enter the airways. This can result in choking. Both types of blockage can cause pain and discomfort.What causes a food blockage? ›
Causes of intestinal obstruction may include fibrous bands of tissue (adhesions) in the abdomen that form after surgery; hernias; colon cancer; certain medications; or strictures from an inflamed intestine caused by certain conditions, such as Crohn's disease or diverticulitis.How do doctors dislodge food stuck in esophagus? ›
An endoscopy may be done if the food does not pass. A scope will be passed through the mouth and down the throat. Small tools will be passed down the tube to remove the food or push it down to the stomach. The doctor will look for possible reasons the food was blocked.
When should I go to the ER for food stuck in my esophagus? ›
If an obstruction interferes with breathing, call for emergency help immediately. If you're unable to swallow because you feel that food is stuck in your throat or chest, go to the nearest emergency department.How do you know if food is stuck in your esophagus? ›
Chest pain, the feeling of food stuck in the throat, or heaviness or pressure in the neck or upper or lower chest may be present. Other symptoms may include: Cough or wheezing that becomes worse. Coughing up food that has not been digested.What causes severe impaction? ›
The kind of chronic constipation that can lead to fecal impaction can itself have a variety of causes, but the three typical factors are insufficient water intake, insufficient dietary fiber, and decreased colon motility.Why does impaction occur? ›
Fecal impaction often occurs in people who have had constipation for a long time and have been using laxatives. The problem is even more likely when the laxatives are suddenly stopped. The muscles of the intestines forget how to move stool or feces on their own.What does esophageal impaction feel like? ›
Impaction at the upper esophageal sphincter is generally easily localized by the patient. However, impaction at sites lower in the esophagus may cause symptoms such as diffuse chest pain or pressure, dysphagia, odynophagia, a sensation of choking, and neck or throat pain (9).Can GERD cause food impaction? ›
Generally, GERD presents with heartburn and regurgitation, whereas EoE presents with episodes of dysphagia and food impaction. However, GERD can also cause dysphagia, and EoE can also cause heartburn.What happens when food gets stuck in your stomach? ›
Undigested food in your stomach can harden into a solid mass called a bezoar. Bezoars can cause nausea and vomiting and may be life-threatening if they prevent food from passing into your small intestine.What kind of doctor treats dysphagia? ›
Depending on the suspected cause, your health care provider might refer you to an ear, nose and throat specialist, a doctor who specializes in treating digestive disorders (gastroenterologist), or a doctor who specializes in diseases of the nervous system (neurologist).How is food obstruction treated? ›
There are multiple treatment methods for esophageal food impaction, including ingestion of carbonated beverages, medications that affect esophageal motility (glucagon and nitrates most commonly), and endoscopic or surgical removal of the food bolus.How do you treat dysphagia from food obstruction? ›
- speech and language therapy to help people recover their swallowing with special exercises and techniques.
- changing the consistency of food and liquids to make them safer to swallow.
- other forms of feeding – such as tube feeding through the nose or stomach.
Which medicine are used for intestinal evacuation? ›
- Fiber supplements. Fiber supplements add bulk to your stool. ...
- Stimulants. Stimulants including bisacodyl (Correctol, Dulcolax, others) and sennosides (Senokot, Ex-Lax, Perdiem) cause your intestines to contract.
- Osmotics. ...
- Lubricants. ...
- Stool softeners. ...
- Enemas and suppositories.
Alka-Seltzer or baking soda
An effervescent drug like Alka-Seltzer may help break down food that's stuck in the throat. Effervescent drugs dissolve when mixed with a liquid. Similar to soda, the bubbles they produce when dissolving may help disintegrate the food and produce pressure that can dislodge it.
Impaction of a soft food bolus in the oesophagus causes dysphagia and regurgitation. If the bolus does not pass spontaneously, then the patient is at risk of aspiration, dehydration, perforation, and death. Definitive management is with endoscopic intervention, recommended within 24 hours.How do you clear an esophageal blockage? ›
If it is an acute blockage, such as food or a foreign object, emergency treatment using an endoscope or surgery will be required to remove the blockage. Usually a scan called a contrast scan show a narrowed area of the foodpipe.What is a swallow test? ›
A swallow test is usually carried out by a speech and language therapist (SLT) and can give a good initial assessment of your swallowing abilities. The SLT will ask you to swallow some water. The time it takes you to drink the water and the number of swallows required will be recorded.Can you choke if food gets stuck in your esophagus? ›
“Food can get stuck in the top part of the esophagus, which can go into the windpipe and cause air obstruction and choking,” says Dr. Garnica.Do laxatives work if you have a blockage? ›
Laxatives. A doctor may recommend laxatives if an enema and manual removal do not work. They cause the colon to create more water, softening the impacted stool and making it easier to remove.Can a blockage resolve itself? ›
Most partial blockages get better on their own. Your doctor may give you a special diet that's easier on your intestines. Enemas of air or fluid can help clear blockages by raising the pressure inside your bowels. A mesh tube called a stent is a safe option for people who are too sick for surgery.Can a bowel obstruction clear on its own? ›
Most of the time, complete blockages require a stay in the hospital and possibly surgery. But if your bowel is only partly blocked, your doctor may tell you to wait until it clears on its own and you are able to pass gas and stool. If so, there are things you can do at home to help make you feel better.What helps push food through the esophagus? ›
Peristalsis is a series of wave-like muscle contractions that move food through the digestive tract. It starts in the esophagus where strong wave-like motions of the smooth muscle move balls of swallowed food to the stomach.
How long can something be stuck in your esophagus? ›
If the object was stuck in your throat or esophagus, your doctor probably removed it. If you swallowed the object, your doctor may have suggested that you wait and see if the object comes out in your stool. Most swallowed objects will pass through your body without any problem and show up in your stool within 3 days.How long does it take for something to go down your esophagus? ›
Once food has entered the esophagus, it doesn't just drop right into your stomach. Instead, muscles in the walls of the esophagus move in a wavy way to slowly squeeze the food through the esophagus. This takes about 2 or 3 seconds.What are the 4 stages of dysphagia? ›
- The Pre-oral Phase. – Starts with the anticipation of food being introduced into the mouth – Salivation is triggered by the sight and smell of food (as well as hunger)
- The Oral Phase. ...
- The Pharyngeal Phase. ...
- The Oesophageal Phase.
- Eating and drinking. Try to drink at least 1.5 litres (3 pints) of water every day. ...
- Smoking. Smoking causes irritation to your throat. ...
- Throat clearing. ...
- Losing weight. ...
- Reducing stress.
The most common treatment for a fecal impaction is an enema, which is special fluid that your doctor inserts into your rectum to soften your stool. An enema often makes you have bowel movements, so it's possible that you'll be able to push out the mass of stool on your own once it's been softened by the enema.How long does impaction take to clear? ›
This process may take up to two weeks, and sometimes longer.How do you deal with impaction at home? ›
- Eating a diet that's adequate in fiber.
- Drinking enough fluids.
- Moving the bowels when the urge strikes.
- Addressing constipation as soon as it hits.
The most common remedy is a procedure called an enema where a doctor will insert a specific fluid into the rectum that softens the stool and makes it easier to push out. If an enema fails to work, it may be necessary to break the stool down and remove it by hand.Who is at risk for impaction? ›
Faecal impaction and risk groups
The elderly and neuropsychiatric patients remain the main principal risk groups for faecal impaction development [3, 9, 39]. However, the adult age group (15–65 years old) has been the most frequently reported,.
- Difficulty swallowing.
- Painful swallowing.
- Swallowed food becoming stuck in the esophagus, also known as food impaction.
- Chest pain, particularly behind the breastbone, that occurs with eating.
- Acid regurgitation.
Is food bolus impaction an emergency? ›
Soft esophageal bolus impaction is an emergency that requires skilled endoscopic removal if persistent obstructive symptoms do not resolve spontaneously after careful observation. Expedited care of these patients is crucial to avoid respiratory and mechanical complications.How do doctors remove stuck food? ›
An endoscopy may be done if the food does not pass. A scope will be passed through the mouth and down the throat. Small tools will be passed down the tube to remove the food or push it down to the stomach. The doctor will look for possible reasons the food was blocked.What helps push food down the esophagus? ›
Peristalsis squeezes your esophageal muscles from top to bottom. This pushes food and liquid along. If you could see peristalsis, it would look like a wave passing down your esophagus. To keep food and liquids moving in the right direction, your digestive tract has special muscles along its course called sphincters.What are the symptoms of food bolus impaction? ›
Impaction at the upper esophageal sphincter is generally easily localized by the patient. However, impaction at sites lower in the esophagus may cause symptoms such as diffuse chest pain or pressure, dysphagia, odynophagia, a sensation of choking, and neck or throat pain (9).When should you go to ER for impaction? ›
If you're constipated and vomiting, it might be a sign of fecal impaction. Fecal impaction occurs when a large, hard mass of stool gets stuck in the colon and can't be pushed out. This is an extremely dangerous situation and requires immediate medical attention.What medication is used for food bolus impaction? ›
Pharmacologic agents are often used prior to endoscopy in patients with esophageal soft bolus impaction. Although no one agent is superior to another, butylscopolamine, glucagon, calcium channel blockers (CCBs), benzodiazepines and nitrates are among the current treatment options available.Will stuck food eventually go down? ›
Food that gets stuck in the throat usually passes on its own, given some time. Give your body a chance to do its thing.Can food stay stuck in your stomach? ›
Gastroparesis is a condition in which food stays in your stomach for longer than it should. You might hear your doctor call it delayed gastric emptying.What foods relax the esophagus? ›
Fatty, spicy or fried foods relax the lower esophageal sphincter as well as delay stomach emptying and therefore cause acid reflux.What relaxes food into the esophagus? ›
Lower esophageal sphincter.
When food reaches the end of your esophagus, a ringlike muscle—called the lower esophageal sphincter —relaxes and lets food pass into your stomach. This sphincter usually stays closed to keep what's in your stomach from flowing back into your esophagus.
Why does food keep getting stuck in my lower esophagus? ›
When the lower esophageal muscle (sphincter) doesn't relax properly to let food enter the stomach, it can cause food to come back up into the throat. Muscles in the wall of the esophagus might be weak as well, a condition that tends to worsen over time.What does it feel like when food is stuck in your esophagus? ›
Feeling like there's a lump in your throat. Trouble swallowing. Chronic cough. A burning sensation in your chest (Unlike a heart attack, GERD presents as more of a burning sensation, while a heart attack feels like chest tightness or pressure, she says.)What is the feeling of food stuck in your chest? ›
Some people have GERD without heartburn. Instead, they experience pain in the chest, hoarseness in the morning or trouble swallowing. You may feel like you have food stuck in your throat, or like you are choking or your throat is tight. GERD can also cause a dry cough and bad breath.