Swallowing air may seem like a fairly innocuous human condition, but too much of it is a medically recognized disorder known as aerophagia. It can result in problems ranging from mild bloating to serious gastric distention. When people swallow air, discrete pockets are forced down the esophagus and digestive tract into the stomach. There, the air collects and periodically makes its way out of the body through belching and flatulence, but often not before causing significant pain and discomfort.
It is important to note that all people swallow air to a small degree as a result of day to day processes such as eating, drinking, and talking. Aerophagia is characterized as the excessive intake of air into the stomach, causing problematic symptoms. There are a variety of reasons why a person may swallow air, including drinking soda, smoking, and cognitive disabilities that impair coordination.
Air that makes its way through the digestive tract to the stomach acts similarly to any gas trapped in a suspension. Eventually, pressure forces it out, either back the way it came or onwards through the small intestine. This is a manageable and painless phenomenon for most people, but can be embarrassing. For those who swallow air to an excessive degree, the built-up pressure can cause painful bloating of the stomach and even cause distention of the gastric organs. In very rare cases, the amount of pressure in the digestive tract can be so extreme it causes the esophagus to rupture.
For preventable causes like soda, gum chewing, or talking while eating, there are a variety of steps that can be taken to limit aerophagia. The most important factor is often being aware of the predilection for taking in too much air and consciously trying to limit it. Smaller portions of food, switching from chewing gum to eating mints, and cutting down on soda are often all it takes to help people restrict the amount of air they swallow. Avoiding potential problem items, such as dairy products and high-fat, high-carbohydrate foods, can also limit the gas that may build up as a by-product of digestion, further curbing the symptoms of aerophagia.
Individuals with coordination problems, often due to cognitive disability, may have difficulties resolving the issue. In these cases, the propensity to swallow air is less due to poor habits or dietary choices and more a result of neurological impairment. Anti-pyschotic drugs, such as chlorpromazine, have been shown to be effective at reducing the muscular dysfunctions that lead to the problem.