Pharynx – Anatomy, Physiology, Pain, Pathologies

The pharynx (from the Greek pharugks, throat), is considered the crossroads between the airways (from the nasal cavity to the larynx) and the digestive tract (from the oral cavity to the esophagus).

Anatomy of the pharynx

Structure. The pharynx is a muscular and membranous duct subdivided into three segments:

  • Upper part: The nasopharynx, or nasopharynx, which communicates with the nasal cavities. It is also connected to the ears by the Eustachian tube or auditory tube.
  • Central part: The oropharynx, open towards the oral cavity, extends the nasopharynx and communicates downwards with the laryngopharynx.
  • Lower part: The laryngopharynx, or hypopharynx, connects the larynx and narrows funnel-shaped to the esophagus.

Presence of tonsilles. Known as tonsils, tonsils are involved in the body’s immune defense system. The pharynx houses several pairs of tonsils of which the most important and visible from the mouth are the palatal tonsils located at the oropharynx, to the right and left of the uvula.

Functions of the pharynx

Role in swallowing. The action of different muscles in the pharynx ensures the transit of food or liquids ingested from the mouth to the esophagus (2). In order to prevent their passage into the airways, the uvula and epiglottis will respectively have close access to the nasal cavity and larynx.

Respiratory function. The pharynx allows the passage of air between the nasal cavity and the larynx.

Role in phonation. The emission of vocal sound is due to the vibration of the vocal cords, located at the level of the larynx. The pharynx, rib cage, and oral and nasal cavities play the role of amplification and resonance.

Immune defenses. Home to tonsils, otherwise known as tonsils, the pharynx plays an essential role in immune defense, at the crossroads of the airways and digestive tracts.

Hearing. Connected to the eardrum by the Eustachian tube, the pharynx ventilates the middle ear.

Pathologies and pain of the pharynx

Sore throat. In the majority of cases, they are of viral origin. These symptoms may be associated with inflammation of the pharynx.

Pharyngitis. It refers to inflammation of the tissues of the pharynx that manifests as dryness and irritation of the throat. It is often caused by a viral or bacterial infection (4). It can also be non-infectious, caused in particular by exposure to allergens.

Angina. It corresponds to inflammation of the tonsils. We can talk about red or white angina depending on the appearance and color of the tonsils. It is often caused by a virus. In the case of a bacterial origin, it is caused by streptococcus.

Rhinopharyngitis. Inflammation of the nasopharynx is diagnosed if the inflammation of the pharynx also affects the nasal mucous membranes.

Cancer of the pharynx. It is usually associated with throat cancer and can occur at any level of the pharynx or larynx.

Treatments and prevention of pharyngeal

Drug therapy. An antibiotic may be prescribed in the case of a bacterial infection. Analgesics may also be advised to relieve pain. Antiallergic treatment may be combined if an allergy is confirmed.

Pharyngectomy. In the most severe cases of cancer, removal of the pharynx may be done.

Radiotherapy. Cancer cells are destroyed by exposure to X6 rays.

Chemotherapy. Medications may be given to limit the spread of cancer.

Complementary solutions. For prevention or to relieve throat pain, homeopathic or herbal solutions can be used.

Examinations of the pharynx

Clinical examination. In the case of inflammation, observation of the throat (red throat) may be enough to establish the diagnosis.

Rapid screening test for strep throat. In order to detect a bacterial infection, the doctor takes a sample from the tonsils by rubbing a swab, a kind of cotton swab. This sample is then immersed in a “test solution” to reveal the presence of streptococcus.

Indirect laryngoscopy. It allows you to observe the throat using a small mirror placed at the back of the throat.

Direct laryngoscopy. Using a rigid, flexible tube introduced through the nose, the doctor can visualize the pharynx and larynx. This procedure can also be used to take a sample (biopsy) if the examination requires it.

Rhinofibroscopy. Performed under local anesthesia, this examination can visualize the nasal cavity, pharynx, and larynx.

Panendoscopy. Performed under general anesthesia, this examination allows the exploration of the oral cavity, pharynx, larynx, trachea, and esophagus.

Historical and symbolic pharynx

Hippocrates described the pharynx as the vestibule of the airways and digestive tracts.

Image Credit: Image by stefamerpik on Freepik

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