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Dysphagia

Dysphagia is the medical term for difficulty in swallowing. Difficulty in swallowing should be evaluated by a healthcare professional to determine which part of the process of swallowing is the problem. It is important to treat swallowing problems to avoid upper respiratory diseases, from food and liquids going down the wrong way, dehydration from not being able to drink enough and malnutrition from not eating enough.

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What is Dysphagia?

Stroke is the leading cause of dysphagia or paralysis of the throat muscles, which causes difficulty swallowing. This condition can make eating, drinking, taking medicine and breathing difficult. Many stroke survivors experience dysphagia or trouble swallowing at some point after a stroke. Difficulty swallowing is most common immediately after a stroke, but usually declines over time.

Symptoms you might experience include:

  • Difficulty starting to swallow
  • Choking when food gets stuck
  • Coughing or gagging while swallowing
  • Liquid coming out of the nose after trying to swallow
  • Food getting caught in the lungs
  • Weak voice
  • Drooling
  • Poor tongue control
  • Loss of gag reflex

Dysphagia should not be confused with painful swallowing or the constant feeling of a lump in the throat.

Can difficulty swallowing be treated?

The most common treatment for difficulty swallowing is swallow therapy done with the help of a speech language, occupational, or physical therapist. Swallow therapy can include electrical stimulation to the muscles at the back of the mouth that help move food into the throat.  

Exercising the tongue, lips, throat, and mouth can help relax and strengthen the muscles as well as increase their flexibility (examples include tucking the chin or rotating the head).

A speech language therapist can teach special exercises to stimulate the nerves involved in swallowing. These can include changing posture and sitting position, reducing distractions at mealtime, eating slower with smaller amounts of food, and changing food texture.

Rarely, a healthcare professional will recommend surgery to address difficulty swallowing.

Some medications, such as muscle relaxers, can help open the throat and make swallowing easier.

Note: Some medications can make swallowing difficulties worse. Talk to a healthcare professional about potential medication side effects and other ways to take medications, if swallowing is a problem.

Tips to live with difficulty swallowing

Dietary changes or changes to the texture or thickness of foods may help with swallowing difficulties. For example, you may be able to chew and swallow smaller pieces so chopping, mincing or puréeing food may make it easier for you to eat. Food should be prepared and consumed correctly to avoid inhaling into the lungs.

Dehydration or not drinking enough is always a risk. Thin fluids, such as water, are harder to swallow changing the thickness with liquid thickeners can be helpful. Ask your healthcare professional for the best plan for your individual needs.

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