A Q&A with Swallowing Specialist Dr. Jim Daniero

While the exact number of people with swallowing disorders remains unknown, some studies suggest it's a surprisingly common condition. Studies indicate it may affect up to 1 in 5 of those over 50. Additionally, estimates suggest a staggering 10 million are evaluated for swallowing difficulties each year.

In honor of National Dysphagia Awareness Month, we sat down with RefluxRaft Co-founder and Laryngologist, Dr. Jim Daniero. As a Dysphagia Specialist, Dr. Daniero sheds light on this often-overlooked condition, sharing his insights on common causes and treatment options for dysphagia

Where did you grow up and where did you go to school?

I spent my formative years in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, just outside of Philadelphia. For my undergraduate studies, I studied at Bucknell University in central Pennsylvania. After Georgetown Graduate School, I enrolled at Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk. My residency in Otolaryngology at Thomas Jefferson University brought me full circle back to the Philadelphia. Here, I began to delve deeper into the specific area of ear, nose, and throat surgery.

Finally, my fellowship at the Vanderbilt University Voice Center in Nashville allowed me to hone my skills and become an expert in treating voice disorders. Reading that back, it was a lot of schooling! But each step played a crucial role in equipping me to help patients in meaningful ways.

Did you always want to be a doctor? Why did you choose Laryngology as a specialty?

My interest in medicine sparked during high school biology – everything finally clicked! School no longer seemed like work in that class, it just all made sense. Combining that newfound passion with a desire to serve others, becoming a doctor felt like the perfect path.

Laryngology specifically appealed to my inner detective. I wanted to be the specialist who solves complex problems, a medical Sherlock Holmes or Dr. House. This meant focusing on a narrow field and mastering it completely. The mechanics of voice, communication, and swallowing functions captivated me. They're fundamental to our social world, and the impact on patients who lose them is profound. Seeing how these struggles affect everyday life, from holidays to simple conversations, solidified my dedication to this field. This journey has been about helping people regain these essential functions and reclaim their quality of life.

Do you have any mentors or peers that really inspire you?

Steve Jobs is a huge inspiration. His visionary leadership and relentless pursuit of innovation continue to motivate me. He challenged the status quo and pushed boundaries, which is a mindset I strive for in my own practice and career.

What exactly is dysphagia and what causes it?

Dysphagia is the medical term for difficulty swallowing. It can affect any part of the swallowing process, from your mouth to your stomach. This can lead to problems with both liquids and solids.

  • Trouble with liquids: Often a voice box problem associated with aspiration, where food or drink goes down the windpipe instead of the esophagus.
  • Solid food sticking: Usually related to problems pushing food forward in the mouth, throat, or esophagus.
  • Many factors can contribute to dysphagia, including weak muscles (weakened by conditions like stroke or neurological diseases), blockages, or reflux damage (acid reflux can irritate the esophagus and make swallowing difficult). 

    If you suspect you or someone you know might have dysphagia, it's important to consult a doctor for proper diagnosis and treatment.

    You often hear dysphagia associated with older populations. In your practice, who is most at risk for dysphagia?

    That's true older adults are indeed a significant population we see with dysphagia in my practice. There are a few reasons for this. As we age, our swallow function naturally declines. Muscles that control swallowing weaken, making it harder to push food down effectively. Neurological problems like Parkinson's disease and strokes become more prevalent with age, and these can disrupt the complex nerve signals needed for a coordinated swallow. Additionally, chronic acid reflux, which can irritate the esophagus and cause scarring, is also more common in older adults.

    However, it's important to remember that dysphagia can affect people of all ages and in particular, infants and babies are another group commonly affected.

    What are some of the complications of Dysphagia, especially if it goes untreated?

    Dysphagia can lead to a variety of complications if left untreated. Here are some of the most concerning:

    Early diagnosis and treatment of dysphagia are crucial to prevent these complications and improve quality of life. If you experience any trouble swallowing, consult a doctor so they can determine the cause and recommend the most appropriate treatment options.

    What are the latest advancements in dysphagia treatment?

    The good news is that the field of dysphagia treatment is constantly evolving, offering new hope for patients. Endoscopic procedures have become a game-changer. These minimally invasive surgeries allow doctors to address problems like Zenker's diverticula (esophageal pouches) or sphincter dysfunction (muscle valve narrowing) with smaller incisions and faster recovery times compared to traditional open surgeries.

    When should someone see a doctor about their swallowing difficulties?

    It's important to seek medical attention if you experience any persistent swallowing difficulties. Swallowing should not be a painful experience. If you experience sharp or persistent pain while swallowing, consult a doctor to determine the cause.

    Remember, even if your swallowing difficulties seem mild, it's always best to err on the side of caution and consult a doctor for a proper evaluation.

    What advice do you have for individuals seeking to maintain overall Ear, Nose, and Throat health?

    I see many patients experiencing ENT problems, and often, these issues could potentially have been prevented with a focus on self-care. It sounds so simple, but prioritizing healthy habits— like eating  a balanced diet, getting regular exercise, and staying hydrated—can have a profound impact on your overall well-being. Building these healthy routines can go a long way!

    What are some of your hobbies?

    I enjoy challenging myself in unique ways. I spend a lot of my free time training for endurance athletic events and have participated in over 25 ultramarathons and triathlons. Dedicating myself to hours of training per week helps me clear my head and manage the stress of being a surgeon, scientist, and entrepreneur. I also enjoy woodworking and working on antique cars. There is something so special  (and satisfying!) about creating or restoring something with your hands.


    Dr. Daniero is the Co-Founder of RefluxRaft. He is a fellowship-trained laryngologist at a leading academic medical center. He specializes in the medical and surgical treatment of laryngeal disorders, including care of the professional voice, upper airway, and swallowing disorders. Dr. Daniero established the Voice and Swallowing Center Within the Department of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery and currently leads a team of clinicians and researchers  dedicated to improving the lives of patients with voice and swallowing  disorders.