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What Is the Role of the Pharynx in the Digestive System?

By Lisa Mooney
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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The pharynx in the digestive system serves an important function. This muscular structure passes food and fluids from the mouth toward the esophagus during swallowing. The pharynx's unique construction and location allows it to play this role in digestion while also functioning as part of the respiratory system. Occasionally, there are problems with the pharynx that are often detected following symptoms such as pain, swelling or inflammation of the throat. A physician should be contacted for a definitive diagnosis so proper treatment can begin when an issue with the pharynx is suspected.

A person's pharynx is located at the back of the throat, where it exists as a muscular cavity that is about 5 inches (12.7 cm) long. The tonsils and adenoids are housed with the pharynx. The inner walls of the pharynx are coated with a muscosal layer that serves to help pass food along during the digestive process. There are three parts of the pharynx that are called the nasopharynx, oropharynx and hypopharynx, according to their locations along the cavity.

After food is introduced into the mouth and is chewed, the tongue pushes it to the back of the throat to be swallowed. The pharynx acts to push the food along by muscle contractions that trigger swallowing. Food then progresses to the esophagus, then to the stomach and through to the small intestine, where the majority of nutrition absorption takes place, before it passes to the large intestine. The role of the pharynx in the digestive system is to help keep the food on track through the digestive system rather than allowing entrance into the windpipe.

Problems sometimes arise and affect the proper functioning of the pharynx in the digestive system. Symptoms that something is amiss include an itchy or sore throat and swelling or inflammation in the area of the throat. Difficulty in swallowing, also called dysphagia, also is a signal that a pharyngeal issue might be occurring.

A person should seek medical treatment when any of these symptoms persist beyond a couple of days. A healthcare professional will perform an examination to help him or her form a diagnosis. Examples of health conditions that can occur include bacterial or viral infection, tonsil stones, polyps and pharygeal cancer.

The function of the pharynx in the digestive system is critical. Without the pharynx, swallowing would not occur, and food could not be digested. The body would starve and eventually cease to function. It is essential for people to see their doctors if they experience persistent pain or difficulty in swallowing, so the issue can be addressed before it worsens.

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Discussion Comments

By OeKc05 — On Jul 15, 2012

@kylee07drg – Not everyone with cancer of the pharynx will require a feeding tube, though some do opt for it. My grandmother had one inserted into her abdomen because swallowing was just too incredibly painful for her.

However, many patients will have the option of drinking liquid nutrition shakes. You can find these in pharmacies, and they will give you all the minerals and vitamins that you need to survive.

I doubt that anyone with pharyngeal cancer would be eating chunks of solid food, though. Personally, I would probably go the liquid nutrition route and skip the feeding tube.

By kylee07drg — On Jul 14, 2012

I imagine that cancer of the pharynx must make eating very difficult. That would be one of the worst types of cancer to have, because it would rob you of the pleasure of eating your favorite foods.

Does anyone know if patients with this type of cancer can eat solid food, or do they have to go on a liquid diet? Do they have to receive feeding tubes, or can they still eat on their own?

My great-grandfather had cancer of the pharynx, but I wasn't even born at this time. I'm afraid that I might get it one day, yet I know next to nothing about it.

By StarJo — On Jul 13, 2012

I was afraid that I might not be able to eat when my pharynx swelled nearly shut. I had strep throat, which is a bacterial infection of the pharynx. It is the worst kind you can have, because your throat swells so much that you can hardly swallow saliva.

Since it was bacterial in nature, I was able to get antibiotics to treat it. I also received a steroid shot to speed up my recovery. The swelling started to subside the next day, and I felt so relieved.

I absolutely could not eat while my pharynx was that swelled. I could barely drink water and soup, much less try to swallow solid food.

By feasting — On Jul 13, 2012

The pharynx does its job well, unless you happen to get tickled at something while eating. If you have ever laughed and had food go down the wrong way, you know what I mean.

I hate eating while I'm with my friends, because they always crack me up. If I have food in my mouth and I suddenly laugh, I start choking, because the food has entered my windpipe instead of going down my pharynx like it should have.

This is painful, and it makes the area sore for some time after I cough the food up. It's just as bad as shooting soda out my nose, which is also possible when laughing while drinking.

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