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Coping with Dysphagia

senior with nurse sitting on a couch

What is Dysphagia?

Swallowing is such a natural movement that most of us don’t think twice about how we do it. However, we’ve all experienced occasional difficulty swallowing, for example when we eat too fast or don’t chew our food thoroughly. Certain health conditions can lead to persistent pain or difficulty swallowing food and liquids, and this is called dysphagia. Having dysphagia means it takes more effort and time to move food and liquids to the stomach. It affects the amount of nourishment a person can take in, and leads to additional medical problems.

Causes of Dysphagia

Swallowing involves a complex chain of over 50 pairs of different muscles and nerves, so dysphagia can arise from a variety of causes. Dysphagia happens when there’s a problem with the controls or structures that are part of the swallowing process. Weak tongue or cheek muscles may affect chewing;
a stroke or other disorder in the nervous system may disrupt the swallowing response; weak throat muscles after surgery may not move all the food toward the stomach. Dysphagia can be the result of:

  • Diseases of the nervous system such as Parkinson’s disease, ALS or multiple sclerosis
  • Stroke or head injury from a fall
  • Cancer of the head, neck or esophagus
  • Cancer treatments such as radiation therapy
  • Infections or irritation of the esophagus
  • Cognitive decline or dementia
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disorder (GERD)

Symptoms of Dysphagia

Dysphagia affects people of all ages but is more common in older adults. This serious medical condition has physical and mental repercussions. Apart from its obvious physical discomfort, it can lead to isolation when seniors become unwilling to eat in front of others or stop attending social situations that involve eating. Here’s how to tell if your loved one is showing dysphagia symptoms:

  • Cutting food into smaller pieces
  • Avoiding certain foods because of trouble swallowing
  • Coughing or gagging while swallowing
  • Inability to swallow
  • Drooling
  • Hoarseness
  • Acid reflux
  • Regurgitation
  • Feeling like food is stuck in their throat or chest
  • Frequent heartburn
  • Unexpected weight loss

Coping with Dysphagia

Dysphagia treatments vary depending on the cause. Doctors and therapists who evaluate and treat swallowing disorders are best able to test and identify where the problem lies and prescribe rehabilitation strategies to help. For some people, treatment may involve muscle exercises or learning to eat in a special way. For others, surgery or medical intervention may be needed. If you’re caring for a loved one with dysphagia, preparing food in a certain way or avoiding certain foods may help. Here are some other tips to help a person with dysphagia cope with daily meals.

  • Maintain good oral hygiene.
  • Sit upright when eating.
  • Reduce distractions.
  • Eat only when alert.
  • Clear all food and liquids from the mouth before taking the next bite.
  • Try smaller, frequent meals if a whole meal is too tiring.

Find Help for Dysphagia

If your senior parent or loved one is experiencing swallowing difficulties, it’s important to seek treatment as soon as possible. South Port Square residents affected by dysphagia have convenient access to a highly skilled senior rehabilitation team, including the services of a licensed speech language pathologist.  We also offer treatment programs like VitalStim® Therapy  to help improve swallowing function. To learn about our specialized treatment programs and range of senior living options, contact us today.