You haven't eaten a thing in hours, yet you still swear something's stuck in your throat. You've tried to hack it up, gargle and gulp a gallon of water, but the phantom food particle remains fixed in place. What gives?
There's a name for this persistent feeling that a piece of food or a foreign object is lingering (or lodged) in your throat or chest when nothing is actually there — it's called globus sensation (or globus pharyngeus).
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Though globus sensation is usually painless, it can still be very frustrating. You might find it difficult to focus on anything other than the lasting lump in your throat.
But fixating on the feeling just creates a vicious cycle of more throat-clearing and coughing, and ultimately, more irritation, says Philip Chen, MD, FARS, an associate professor of otolaryngology and rhinology at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio
So what can you do if you feel like something is wedged at the top of your windpipe? Here, Dr. Chen shares the most common causes for globus sensation and how to manage each so you can swallow effortlessly once more.
5 Causes of Globus Sensation
Why some people feel like something is stuck in their throat (even when there's no physical obstruction) is still unknown, but it appears to stem from several factors, Dr. Chen says.
While there are many possible causes, generally, globus sensation seems to be associated with some type of throat-related irritation. Here are the most common culprits:
1. You Have GERD
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), a condition that occurs when stomach acid flows back into the esophagus (the tube that connects your mouth and stomach), may be the source of your exasperating throat sensation.
In fact, acid reflux may account for about half of the cases of globus pharyngeus, Dr. Chen says.
"There are two primary theories on how acid can lead to globus," he says. "The first is that acid directly irritates the pharynx, leading to inflammation and the feeling that something is stuck in the throat."
The second hypothesis is that when acidic juices stream up from your stomach into the lower part of the esophagus, it "triggers the vasovagal reflex to tighten the upper esophageal sphincter, causing a feeling of something stuck there," he explains.
Other symptoms of GERD include, per the Cleveland Clinic:
- Regurgitation (food comes back into your mouth from the esophagus)
- Chest pain
- Problems swallowing
- Sore throat and hoarseness
Fix it: To get rid of globus sensation, you first need to get your GERD under control.
Medications such as histamine 2 blockers (including famotidine and ranitidine), proton pump inhibitors (such as omeprazole, esomprazole and pantoprazole) and non-medicated alginate therapy (a natural substance derived from seaweed that floats on the surface of your stomach contents to form a physical barrier against reflux) can all help treat or prevent GERD symptoms, Dr. Chen says.
Talk to your doctor about the best option for you.
2. You Have an Inflammatory Throat Condition
Certain health issues that affect the pharynx (throat) may play a role in globus sensation.
For example, medical problems that produce irritation and inflammation of the throat — including pharyngitis, tonsillitis and chronic sinusitis with postnasal drip — can stimulate an increased sensitivity in the throat region, generating globus pharyngeus, according to a May 2012 review in the World Journal of Gastroenterology.
Fix it: See your doctor, who can properly diagnose and treat your throat condition. Once the underlying issue is in check, your globus sensation should subside.
3. You Have a Thyroid Problem
People with certain kinds of thyroid disease may develop a feeling that something's stuck in their throat too.
Thyroid abnormalities appear to be more prevalent in people with globus sensation, and approximately one-third of those with a thyroid mass report globus-related symptoms, according to the World Journal of Gastroenterology.
Specifically, goiters — or an enlarged thyroid gland — can bring on globus sensation.
Additional signs of goiter involve, per the Cleveland Clinic:
- A lump in the front of your neck, just below your Adam's apple
- A feeling of tightness in your throat area
- Neck vein swelling
- Dizziness when you raise your arms above your head
- Difficulty breathing
- Difficulty swallowing
Still, it's worth noting that "oftentimes, thyroid enlargements, like goiters, are very slow growing and don't cause symptoms [until they're relatively large]," Dr. Chen says.
Fix it: If you think you’re experiencing thyroid troubles, consult with an endocrinologist (a doctor who specializes in thyroid disorders) who can perform an assessment.
4. You’re Dealing With Anxiety and Stress
Believe it or not, emotional factors can contribute to your incapacity to clear your throat.
While the relationship remains unclear, there's evidence that some people with globus pharyngeus have a higher incidence of depression and life stressors, Dr. Chen says. And many people with globus sensation (up to 96 percent) report worsening symptoms during times of significant stress, according to an October 2015 paper in the British Journal of General Practice.
The thing is, this can cause a damaging domino effect. For instance, a person may get caught in a pattern of throat-clearing that can aggravate anxiety, leading to additional throat-clearing and irritation, which can prompt even more physical and psychological distress, Dr. Chen says.
Fix it: “After more pressing medical issues are ruled out, one can work with a speech language pathologist to help cope with the sensation using methods like biofeedback [a therapeutic technique that helps you control some of your body's functions] to help alleviate the anxiety,” Dr. Chen says.
What’s more, “in these situations, working with a mental health professional can also be helpful,” he adds. Indeed, if anxiety, stress or depression trigger the tendency to clear your throat, finding healthier ways to manage these feelings may improve your globus sensation symptoms too.
5. You’re Taking a Certain Medication
The cause of your throat irritation could be sitting on the shelf in your medicine cabinet.
"Medications that decrease saliva production can result in globus as well," Dr. Chen says.
As a matter of fact, people dealing with dry mouth (also known as xerostomia) seem to be at a greater risk for globus pharyngeus. That's what a February 2010 study in Head & Neck discovered. Researchers concluded that reduced salivary flow (i.e., salivary hypofunction) appears to be a contributing factor to globus sensation.
The problem is, a plethora of common over-the-counter and prescription drugs can cause oral dryness, including antihistamines, antihypertensive medications, decongestants, pain medications, diuretics, muscle relaxants and antidepressants, according to the American Dental Association (ADA).
Fix it: If you believe your medication is causing that lingering lump in your throat, speak with your doctor, who can adjust your dosage or prescribe another drug to decrease dry mouth — and accompanying globus — symptoms.
Other Reasons You May Feel Like You Have Something Stuck in Your Throat
1. Food Obstructions
Sometimes swallowing is difficult because you literally have a little food lodged in your throat.
"I would separate this from globus pharyngeus because in this case there really is something stuck," Dr. Chen says.
People can get food stuck in their throat for multiple reasons, he adds. Here are a few:
You don't chew properly. "If one doesn't chew well, things like bread or meat get stuck and, in severe cases, can't be washed down with a drink," Dr. Chen says.
You have a certain health issue. Some medical conditions may make swallowing difficult, Dr. Chen says. These include scleroderma, eosinophilic esophagitis, tumors (more on this later), stroke and diverticulum.
And when food is caught in your throat, it can be very uncomfortable and possibly dangerous. For instance, when a food particle that's jammed in your upper esophagus finally dislodges, it can enter the windpipe, severing your air supply, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
In addition, food that's trapped in your esophagus for an extended time can result in irritation, inflammation and erosion of the esophageal lining, per the Cleveland Clinic.
Fix it: Whether you have a tidbit of food trapped in your throat or you suspect a medical problem is preventing you from swallowing seamlessly, see your doctor immediately.
An ENT can safely remove the rogue piece of food and evaluate you for any underlying health conditions that may be causing your chow to get stuck.
"Tumors of the tongue, larynx (voice box), pharynx (throat) and esophagus (food pipe) can all result in physical blockage leading to difficulty swallowing," Dr. Chen says.
"Tumors of the neck, like thyroid masses, can also compress the esophagus, making it difficult to swallow," he says.
As tumors cause a tangible obstruction in the throat, they are "very different conditions than globus pharyngeus — and much more critical," Dr. Chen adds.
Fix it: If left untreated, a tumor can grow larger, possibly blocking your airway and your ability to breathe. Once again, visit your doctor immediately, who can perform an assessment and devise a proper treatment plan.
When Should You See a Doctor for Globus Sensation?
"If it doesn't go away after a few weeks, or if someone has a smoking history, heavy alcohol use or a long record of acid reflux and heartburn, it's important to get evaluated sooner rather than later," Dr. Chen says.
And any time you have difficulty breathing or swallowing or begin coughing up blood, seek emergency medical assistance immediately, as these may be signs of a more serious health issue, he adds.
- Cleveland Clinic: “GERD (Chronic Acid Reflux)”
- British Journal of General Practice: “Globus pharyngeus: an update for general practice”
- World Journal of Gastroenterology: “Globus pharyngeus: A review of its etiology, diagnosis and treatment”
- Cleveland Clinic: “Goiter”
- Head & Neck: “Role of salivary function in patients with globus pharyngeus”
- American Dental Association: “Xerostomia (Dry Mouth)”
- Cleveland Clinic: “Feel Like Food Is Stuck in Your Throat? What to Do and How to Find Relief”
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.