It's never a pleasant experience when your throat starts to tighten or feels like it's closing up. It also can prove frustratingly difficult to identify the root cause. That's because, when it comes to tight throat muscles, there's an array of possible explanations to consider.
Dysphagia Complicates Swallowing
One cause of a tight throat can be a condition called dysphagia. According to the National Library of Medicine (NLM), dysphagia is defined by a feeling that food or liquid is stuck inside the throat passageway prior to entering the stomach.
As to why dysphagia strikes, the NLM says that swallowing is a complicated nerve and muscle maneuver, involving chewing and moving food into the back of the mouth before pushing it further down the food pipe, which is your esophagus.
The swallowing process can be undermined in various ways. Brain damage caused by multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's disease or a stroke is one, the NLM notes. And so is nerve damage triggered by spinal cord trauma or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease.
Stress and anxiety can also contribute to feeling as if there's a lump in your throat, rendering swallowing difficult even if you're not eating anything.
This is called a globus sensation, according to a report published in the British Journal of General Practice in October 2015. It might feel like a tightening or swelling of your throat or might resemble a feeling of choking or a lump in your throat. It also can give rise to a chronic cough, throat clearing and hoarseness, the report notes.
About 96 percent of people who develop this condition say that their symptoms worsen during intense emotional experiences, according to the report. But beyond stress, it can also be triggered by a throat muscle (cricopharyngeal spasm), bone spurs in the neck (cervical osteophytosis), a hernia, sinusitis or post-nasal drip.
For some people, another source of globus sensation may be acid reflux, the report notes. This occurs when your stomach contents back up into your throat and esophagus because the valve at the end of the esophagus fails to close up after food you've swallowed enters the stomach. Chronic acid reflux, known as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) affects as much as a fifth of the U.S. population, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
For some people, an auto-immune disorder could be the underlying cause of throat tightness. One example is a condition called Hashimoto's thyroiditis (HA).
According to Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles, thyroiditis occurs when the thyroid gland — a butterfly-shaped gland at the front of the throat — becomes irritated and swollen as a result of antibodies attacking thyroid cells. The result is scarring brought on by too many white blood cells, which makes the thyroid feel firm and rubbery.
HA is the most common version of this condition. The Mayo Clinic warns that HA can lead to chronic thyroid damage and hypothyroidism, in which the thyroid becomes underactive. That can trigger fatigue, constipation and unexplained weight gain.
It can also provoke tongue swelling and, when left untreated, the development of a goiter, which is when the thyroid becomes enlarged, says Mayo Clinic. A goiter can cause a bulge on the neck and trigger difficulty and pain when swallowing, speaking and breathing, notes Cedars-Sinai.
Flu and Throat Tightness
Throat tightness also could be the result of the flu, says Hana Hakim, MD, an associate faculty member in infectious diseases at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee.
"Influenza, or the flu, may present with sore throat, in addition to other symptoms, including fever, cough, runny nose, headache, muscle ache and fatigue," she says.
But Dr. Hakim adds that "if the presence of a tight throat is the only symptom, in the absence of other symptoms, it's less likely to be caused by the flu." In that case, "it is important to evaluate for other possible causes," she advises.
Read more: Caffeine and Throat Tightness
Is This an Emergency?
- Hana Hakim, MD, associate faculty member, department of infectious diseases, St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, Memphis, Tennessee
- National Library of Medicine: "Swallowing difficulty"
- Cleveland Clinic: “GERD (Chronic Acid Reflux)”
- Cedars-Sinai: "Hashimoto's Thyroiditis"
- British Journal of Medical Practice: "Globus Pharyngeus: an Update for General Practice"
- Mayo Clinic: "Hashimoto's Disease"