June is National Dysphagia Awareness Month | What is Dysphagia, or a Swallowing Disorder?

Published: Thursday, June 24, 2021
Speech-Language Pathologist at the Rehabilitation Institute of NGMC

Dysphagia, or difficulty swallowing foods and liquids, is a disorder that can involve the oral cavity, pharynx, or esophagus.  Each year, as many as one in every 25 adults will experience a swallowing problem in the United States.  

What Are Common Causes of Dysphagia?

  • Neurological Conditions – such as Parkinson’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and multiple sclerosis
  • Nerve Damage – usually following a traumatic brain injury or stroke
  • Respiratory diseases – such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
  • Head and neck cancer and some head and neck cancer treatments  
  • Gastrointestinal or esophageal disorders

If left untreated, dysphagia can lead to further complications such as malnutrition, dehydration, weight loss, aspiration pneumonia (food or liquid entering the lungs causing an infection) or choking.

What Are Common Signs and Symptoms That May Indicate Dysphagia?

  • Difficulty chewing and moving food from mouth to throat
  • Oral loss/drooling of food and/or liquid
  • Remnants of food that remain on the tongue or in cheeks
  • Throat clearing and/or coughing during or immediately after swallowing
  • Wet-sounding voice during or after meals
  • Pain when swallowing
  • Feeling like food is stuck in your throat
  • Swallowing several times to clear each bite of food or sip of liquid
  • Difficulty coordinating breathing and eating

How is Dysphagia Evaluated?

Speech-language pathologists (SLP) are an integral part of the team that assesses, treats, and manages dysphagia. The process of assessing dysphagia includes instrumental approaches that allow visualization of the actual swallowing structures and clinical procedures such as oral motor exams, cranial nerve exams, and food/liquid trials. Part of the assessment speech-language pathologists conduct may also include making appropriate recommendations and referrals based on any signs/symptoms of esophageal dysphagia.

Because dysphagia can have various causes and signs/symptoms, treatment and management vary from person to person. Several factors must be considered, including the cause and location of the dysphagia, the instrumental assessment(s) results, a patient’s medical history and/or other co-occurring medical conditions, and patient wishes.

What Types of Treatment and Intervention are Available for Dysphagia?

  • Exercises/maneuvers to improve strength of musculature, timing, range of motion, and endurance
  • Implementing compensatory strategies and aspiration precautions
  • Biofeedback
  • Modifying diet textures
  • Alternative means of nutrition via feeding tubes (e.g., nasogastric tube, percutaneous endoscopic gastrostomy)

Ultimately, the goal of dysphagia treatment and management is to make swallowing safer and as efficient as possible, support hydration/nutrition and determine appropriate supports.

Ready to Learn More?

Visit the Rehabilitation Institute at nghs.com/rehabilitation-services to learn more about our outpatient Speech Therapy services.

If you think you or someone you know is experiencing dysphagia, please speak with your physician or seek emergency medical assistance.