What Are Swallowing Disorders And How Can Speech Therapy Help?

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Have you ever experienced any difficulty when swallowing food or drink? Occasional difficulty swallowing, which may happen when you drink too fast or talk while you are eating, usually isn't a cause for concern. However, if the problem persists, worsens, or causes distress or pain, it is important to have a full swallow evaluation.

Swallowing disorders, also called dysphagia, can occur at any age. In adults, they can happen suddenly, for example as a result of trauma or injury (e.g. head injury, stroke) or gradually, for example, in those with Parkinson's disease or Head and Neck Cancer. The causes of swallowing problems vary – several diseases, conditions, or surgical interventions can result in swallowing problems – but sometimes the cause of dysphagia can't be identified.  

Some general signs and symptoms associated with dysphagia may include:

  • Coughing or spluttering during or after eating/drinking
  • Choking episodes
  • Sensation of food getting ‘stuck’
  • Unable to swallow
  • Pain when swallowing (odynophagia)
  • Taking an increasing amount of time to finish a meal
  • Avoiding foods or having to cut up foods into smaller pieces or eat softer mashed foods
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Eye watering/tearing when eating/drinking
  • Change in colour when eating/drinking, or becoming short of breath
  • Drooling or severe dry mouth (xerostomia)
  • Poor mouth care (oral hygiene)

Dysphagia can lead to potentially life threatening consequences, as well as isolation, impaired quality of life, embarrassment, and lack of enjoyment of food and drink. If left untreated, dysphagia can lead to malnutrition, dehydration, choking, chronic pain, chest infections and aspiration pneumonia (food or liquid entering the airway).

How are swallowing disorders diagnosed?

A speech-language therapist plays a primary role in the evaluation and treatment of swallowing disorders. The therapist will take a history of existing medical conditions and symptoms, assess the strength and movement of the muscles involved in swallowing, and observe feeding position and behaviour.

Sinead Francis, Speech & Language therapist, strive clinic galway

Sinead Francis, Speech & Language therapist, strive clinic galway

What treatments are available for people with swallowing disorders?

Treatment depends on the cause, symptoms, and type of swallowing problem. A speech & language therapist may help with:

  • A specific swallowing treatment (e.g. exercises to improve muscle movement)
  • Recommending food and liquid textures that are easier and safer to swallow
  • Educating caregivers/family to support the individual’s needs Strategies or therapies to improve swallow function and improve confidence