What do I need to know about swallowing disorders?
Swallowing disorders, also called dysphagia (dis-FAY-juh), can occur at different stages in the swallowing process:
- Oral phase – sucking, chewing, and moving food or liquid into the throat.
- Pharyngeal phase – starting the swallowing reflex, squeezing food down the throat, and closing off the airway to prevent food or liquid from entering the airway (aspiration) or to prevent choking.
- Esophageal phase – relaxing and tightening the openings at the top and bottom of the feeding tube in the throat (esophagus) and squeezing food through the esophagus into the stomach.
What are the causes of swallowing disorders in adults?
Some causes of feeding and swallowing problems in adults are:
- Damage to the nervous system, such as:
- Brain injury.
- Spinal cord injury.
- Parkinson’s disease.
- Multiple sclerosis.
- Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease).
- Muscular dystrophy.
- Cerebral palsy.
- Alzheimer’s disease.
- Or, problems affecting the head and neck, including:
- Cancer in the mouth, throat, or esophagus.
- Injury or surgery involving the head and neck.
- Decayed or missing teeth, or poorly fitting dentures.
Diagnosis & Treatment Options
What are the signs and symptoms of swallowing disorders?
Several diseases, conditions, or surgical interventions can result in swallowing problems. General signs may include:
- Coughing during or right after eating or drinking.
- Wet or gurgly sounding voice during or after eating or drinking.
- Extra effort or time needed to chew or swallow.
- Food or 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.
As a result, adults may have:
- Poor nutrition or dehydration.
- Risk of aspiration (food or liquid entering the airway), which can lead to pneumonia and chronic lung disease.
- Less enjoyment of eating or drinking.
- Embarrassment or isolation in social situations involving eating.
How are swallowing disorders diagnosed?
A speech-language pathologist (SLP) who specializes in swallowing disorders can evaluate individuals who are experiencing problems eating and drinking. The SLP will:
- Take a careful history of medical conditions and symptoms.
- Look at the strength and movement of the muscles involved in swallowing.
- Observe feeding to see posture, behavior, and oral movements during eating and drinking.
- Possibly perform special tests to evaluate swallowing, such as:
- Modified barium swallow – individual eats or drinks food or liquid with barium in it, and then the swallowing process is viewed on an X-ray.
- Endoscopic assessment – a lighted scope is inserted through the nose, and then the swallow can be viewed on a screen.
How are swallowing disorders treated?
Treatment depends on the cause, symptoms, and type of swallowing problem. A speech-language pathologist may recommend:
- Specific swallowing treatment (e.g., exercises to improve muscle movement).
- Positions or strategies to help the individual swallow more effectively.
- Specific food and liquid textures that are easier and safer to swallow.
After the evaluation, family members or caregivers can help by:
- Asking questions to understand the problem and the recommended treatment.
- Assisting in following the treatment plan.
- Help with exercises.
- Preparing the recommended textures of food and liquid, making sure that recommendations for eating safely are followed.
- Keeping track of how much food or liquid is consumed.
Preparing for Care
When should I seek care immediately or call 911?
- You cannot eat or drink liquids at all.
- You have chest pain.
- You have shortness of breath.
When should I contact my healthcare provider?
- You lose weight without trying.
- Your signs and symptoms get worse, or you have new signs or symptoms.
- You have signs or symptoms of dehydration, such as increased thirst, dark yellow urine, or little or no urine.
- You get colds often.
- You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.