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Stroke Smart Magazine

January/February 2008

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Tips to Help Your Loved One with Swallowing Problems

by Mary Henderson

Does your loved one have trouble swallowing?

If so, you're in good company. According to Dr. Jonathan Aviv from Columbia University, as many as 65 percent of stroke patients have some degree of dysphagia, or inability to swallow normally.

The first step: Find a speech therapist who can help you treat the problem. According to Aviv, there are techniques today for diagnosing and treating swallowing disorders that were unavailable even five years ago. Your doctor can refer you to a speech therapist. There are also things you can do at home with your loved one.

Here are 9 techniques that worked for my husband:

1. Have your patient sit up as straight as possible while eating.

2. If the swallowing problems are mild, encourage your patient to take small bites, chew the food thoroughly and then sip water afterwards. You may find that a water "chaser" can avoid the sensation that the patient still has something stuck in his throat.

3. Use a small spoon, so your patient only puts a small amount of food at a time in his or her mouth.

4. If drinking is a problem, try using a sippy cup designed to help children learn to drink without spilling.

5. Try drinking through a straw.

6. Buy a thickener, such as Thick-ItŪ, that uses modified cornstarch to thicken liquid to almost any consistency you want. You can buy thickeners at a drug store.

7. If your patient doesn't like the flavor of the thickened water, add lemon juice to it. This makes it taste more like lemonade.

8. If the dysphagia is severe, provide water with a medicine dropper.

9. A technique for severe cases: Take a gulp of water, hold it in your mouth, and then form a groove with your tongue in the shape of a nipple. Offer this "nipple" for the patient to nurse on. Of course, this approach would only be appropriate for two people who are extremely close. In our situation, my husband had the suckling instincts of a newborn, and to my amazement and joy, there was no trace of choking. Maybe the liquid, hitting the roof of his mouth, triggered the appropriate swallowing reflex. Or maybe the nursing reflex was in a part of his brain that had remained undamaged. I don't know how it worked. But it did work.

Before trying any new approach, check with your doctors and therapists. Each situation is different, and what was helpful in my situation may not be in yours. But one way or another, take action! You can improve the quality of life - not only for your patient, but for yourself.

Mary Henderson (not her real name) lives in New York. Her husband is deceased.


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