Throat Diagram: Structure and Common Problems of the Throat

Throat is a word that refers to several different parts of the neck. For this article, throat will refer to what’s anatomically known as the pharynx—that is, the passage that runs from your nasal cavities, through the back of your mouth, and into your esophagus and windpipe. We’ll learn the basic anatomy and structure of the throat, as well as some common medical problems that correspond to the parts we’re talking about. Refer to this throat diagram as we go to get a sense of the location of each of these parts and how they relate to each other.

Nasopharynx

The uppermost section of the throat is called the nasopharynx (naso=nose, as in nasal). This region extends from the back of the nose to the upper palate of the mouth. Here you’ll find the Eustachian tubes, which lead to the ear canal and terminate in the eardrum. Their purpose is to equalize the pressure on each side of your eardrum to keep it from bursting—if you’ve ever restored your hearing on an airplane by popping your ears, you’ve used your Eustachian tubes. These tubes can become obstructed during both upper respiratory and inner ear infections, leading to a feeling of stuffiness. The nasopharynx is also the site of certain kinds of cancer, called nasopharyngeal cancer.

Oropharynx

The oropharynx resides just behind your mouth and below the nasopharynx (oro=mouth, as in oral). Your palatine tonsils reside in the oropharynx, which are the most likely to contract tonsillitis and require removal in children. The epiglottis is also found mostly in the oropharynx. This is a muscular flap which covers the entry to the windpipe when you swallow food, preventing solids and liquids from “going down the wrong pipe.”

The muscles that help you swallow food begin in the oropharynx, and hence trouble swallowing – known as oropharyngeal dysphagia – is a problem of this region. It is most common, though not exclusive to, the elderly, and usually presents as a symptom of another disease. Oropharyngeal cancer is another possibility, which has been linked to human papilloma virus.

Laryngopharynx

The final chamber of the pharynx is called the laryngopharynx, so called for its proximity to the larynx. Here, the throat diverges into two pathways: the larynx and the esophagus.

  • The larynx is the tube that carries air from the throat down to your lungs, quickly turning into a structure called the trachea and then the bronchus. The larynx contains your voice box and vocal cords, which can either be opened, to allow air to pass through easily, or squeezed together to cause them to vibrate in speech. Disorders of the larynx – most commonly inflammation, known as laryngitis – naturally have a detrimental effect on the quality of your voice. Air is drawn through the larynx by the expansion and contraction of the lungs.
  • The esophagus lies behind the larynx, and carries food and water down to the stomach. As opposed to the larynx, this material is pushed down the throat by muscular action called swallowing, which begins in the oropharynx and is passed down through the laryngopharynx, and into the esophagus. The most common ailment of the esophagus is acid reflux, in which acidic bile from the stomach is pushed back into the esophagus, leading to painful heartburn.
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