Help for Swallowing Difficulties
National Better Hearing and Speech Month
In recognition of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association’s designation of May as National Better Hearing & Speech Month, SALMON VNA speech department team members share some of the ways speech-language pathologists (SLPs) may help improve the health and communication of those they serve.
Eating and drinking are vital parts of our everyday lives. They provide essential nutrition and hydration, and they’re activities we enjoy doing with friends and family. When someone has difficulty swallowing, not only does it affect their physical health, but it can affect their social life as well.
Difficulty swallowing is known as dysphagia. Dysphagia is usually caused by diseases or damage to your brain or nerves. Diagnoses that may be associated with swallowing problems include stroke, brain injury, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), head/neck cancer and injuries or surgeries to the head or neck.
There are certain signs and symptoms to watch for when someone has difficulty swallowing, such as coughing when eating or drinking; a wet or “gurgly” voice during or after eating/drinking; extra effort or time needed to chew or swallow food; liquid leaking from the mouth or getting stuck in the mouth; recurring pneumonia or chest congestion after eating; weight loss or dehydration from not being able to eat enough; or, feeling like food is stuck in your throat. It is important to listen to your body for these signs and symptoms as serious swallowing problems can result in food going into your lungs instead of your stomach. This can lead to pneumonia and other breathing problems. A person with such severe swallowing difficulty may even need a feeding tube to help get enough nutrition to assist with healing and strengthening their body.
If you or someone you know is experiencing difficulty swallowing, you should consult your health care provider, who may refer you to a speech-language pathologist (SLP) or speech therapist who works with people having swallowing problems. Once an evaluation is ordered by a physician, an SLP will evaluate a person who is having difficulty swallowing and may perform special tests to see inside their throat when they swallow. After the evaluation is completed, a SLP may work to help strengthen the muscles that are used for swallowing. An SLP may recommend diet texture modifications that can help a person swallow more easily while they are working on strengthening their swallowing muscles, and may also recommend positions or strategies to help with swallow safety. A newer and more innovative treatment method for swallowing difficulty that helps to target strengthening swallow muscles in addition to exercises is called neuromuscular electrical stimulation, also known as VitalStim®. (Clinicians who use VitalStim® have completed a rigorous training course to become certified in this highly successful treatment method.)
The prognosis for dysphagia varies with each individual and depends on several factors, including age, overall health and the cause of the swallowing difficulty. With early evaluation and proper treatment, many people experience a significant decrease of symptoms and improvement in their swallowing abilities.
—Contributed by Jenelle Young, MS, CCC-SLP, and Melissa Day, MS, CCC-SLP