MAYWOOD, Ill. - Swallowing is something most people do without giving it so much as a second thought.
Joe Gerace of Joliet was one of a growing number of exceptions. For months, he couldn't get swallowing out of his mind, especially at mealtimes, after he developed a swallowing disorder that severely affected his and his wife Barbara's quality of life.
"I had to stop eating because I started to get blockages," said Gerace, who suffered from achalasia (Auk-a-lay-si-a), a condition in which the sphincter in the esophagus fails to relax enough to allow food to pass into the stomach. "I had to go to the hospital to get the blockages cleared. The food would not go down. The hardest part was I had to give up my social life because there were many times when I was in a restaurant and I had to get up to regurgitate. It was that bad."
Gerace is one of the first patients to find relief for his condition at the Swallowing Center at Loyola University Health System in Maywood, a multi-disciplinary specialty clinic of skilled surgeons, gastroenterologists, otolaryngologists, speech pathologists and pulmonologists who use a full range of leading-edge technologies and therapies to diagnose and treat swallowing disorders. The center is one of the few in the United States that's solely devoted to treating disorders that affects millions of Americans.
"I'm back! My lifestyle has changed completely," Gerace said. "I went from a liquid diet to a full-fledged diet. You have no idea how great it is to be able to eat solid food again. I've got my life back. It's wonderful!"
Loyola's Swallowing Center offers state-of-the-art care to patients with swallowing disorders, which can occur at any point in the journey from mouth to stomach. Such disorders can lead to poor nutrition, unexplained weight loss, choking, dehydration, hoarseness, voice impairment and the ingestion of food or fluids into the lungs.
Millions of American have trouble swallowing or complain of frequent heartburn and acid reflux. In acid reflux patients, stomach acid backs up into the esophagus, which can cause inflammation of the esophagus (esophagitis), chest pain, frequent coughing, asthma and other breathing problems, and ear, nose and throat complaints. Early treatment of such problems is very important.
"Swallowing disorders can be quite serious, even life-threatening if not properly treated," said Dr. P. Marco Fisichella, director of the Swallowing Center. "They can occur at any age but are more common in older adults. As the baby-boom generation gets up in age, we can expect to see more people with these disorders," added Fisichella, who is also an assistant professor, department of surgery, Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine in Maywood.
Symptoms of a swallowing disorder include drooling, food or fluid leaking out of the nose, food remaining in the mouth after swallowing, pain when swallowing and a feeling like something is stuck in the throat. Other symptoms include having to make unusual movements of the head or neck to get food down, coughing or choking a lot when eating or drinking, frequent bouts of pneumonia and a wet or gurgle-like voice after swallowing.
A number of conditions can lead to swallowing disorders, including aging, tumors of the neck and head, cervical spine diseases, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, scleroderma, esophageal strictures, radiation therapy to the neck, trauma, infections, myasthenia gravis, stroke and pharyngeal diverticulas, a condition in which small pouches form in the esophagus.
Diagnostic tests offered at the Swallowing Center include esophageal manometry, which records muscle pressure in the esophagus; endoscopic ultrasonography, 24-hour pH monitoring to test for acid reflux disease, multichannel intraluminal impedance monitoring, which measures the flow of liquid and gas through the esophagus; and manofluoroscopy, which measures and records pressure changes in the esophagus and videotapes the swallow.
Treatments offered at the Swallowing Center include medication and swallowing therapy endoscopy. If surgery is required, instead of a large incision the Swallowing Center utilizes a less-invasive treatment that offers a shorter hospital stay and less scarring over conventional techniques. In Gerace's case, physicians inserted a tiny camera through a small incision in his belly button in order to get a three-dimensional look at the area to be treated. Working through tiny incisions, his physicians used specially designed instruments to treat his poorly functioning esophageal muscles.
Diagnostic tests offered at the Swallowing Center include high-resolution impedance/esophageal manometry, which records muscle pressures in the esophagus and coordination of contractions and relaxations of the different structures that constitute the esophagus; 24-hour multichannel intraluminal impedance pH monitoring, which tests for acid reflux disease and measures the flow of liquid and gas through the esophagus.
Treatments offered at the Swallowing Center include a full range of medical and surgical options. If surgery is required, instead of a large incision the Swallowing Center utilizes a minimally invasive treatment that offers a shorter hospital stay and less scarring over conventional techniques. In Gerace's case, physicians inserted a tiny camera through a small incision in his abdomen in order to get a magnified look at the area to be treated. Working through tiny incisions, his physicians used specially designed instruments to treat his poorly functioning esophageal muscles.
"His surgery consisted of five small incisions and he was overnight in the hospital. From the moment he entered surgery to his discharge he was in the hospital less than 24 hours," Fisichella said.