What is Dysphagia?
Dysphagia is the medical term for difficulty swallowing or paralysis of the throat muscles. 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
- 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. Some stroke survivors may be candidates for Neuromuscular Electrical Stimulation (NMES). If you show signs of aspiration or have difficulty managing your diet, you may be a candidate for this type of dysphagia therapy.
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.
Some medications, such as muscle relaxers, can help open the throat and make swallowing easier.
Tips to living with dysphagia
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.