What is Dysphagia

Dysphagia (pronounced “dis-fay-ja”) is a medical term for the difficulty or inability to swallow safely and efficiently. Dysphagia is often referred to as “Swallowing Difficulties”.

While typically more common in babies and the elderly, dysphagia can affect people of all ages, and can be caused by multiple diseases e.g. Stroke, Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. Dysphagia can cause additional health problems, and should therefore be diagnosed and treated appropriately.

Understanding Swallowing

Swallowing dysfunction along any point from your mouth to your throat (phases 1 to 3) can result in food and liquids entering the “wrong tube” and into your airway. This is known as oropharyngeal dysphagia (or simply dysphagia).

Understanding Swallowing Illustration. Phase 1: Oral preparation in the mouth. Phase 2: Early transit through the throat. Phase 3: Late transit through the esophagus.

Is Dysphagia serious?

If left untreated or undiagnosed, dysphagia can compromise your health, cause less enjoyment of eating and drinking, and lead to embarrassment or isolation in social situations that involve eating. However, with the proper diagnosis and healthcare professional-recommended dietary modifications, including nutritional solutions, dysphagia can be managed.

Potential risks for untreated or undiagnosed patients:

  • Poor nutrition and dehydration:

    Because weak throat muscles can make eating and drinking challenging, some people skip meals or avoid drinking beverages. This could result in the inability to consume enough foods and/or liquids to maintain proper nutrition, immunity and hydration.

  • Aspiration pneumonia or chronic lung disease:

    Muscles in the throat typically block food and saliva from entering the airway. But as muscles weaken, food might go down the “wrong way” — into the lungs instead of the stomach and may lead to pneumonia.

Conditions that cause Dysphagia

  • Stroke
    • Progressive neurologic diseases, such as:
    • Parkinson’s
    • Multiple Sclerosis
    • ALS
    • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Brain injury or tumors
  • Head and neck cancer
  • Injury or surgery to the head and/or neck

Symptoms of Dysphagia

  • Difficulty swallowing foods, liquids or saliva
  • Frequent coughing or choking before or after swallowing
  • Drooling
  • A need to swallow repeatedly
  • A “wet” or gurgly voice, especially after swallowing
  • Unintended weight loss
  • Feeling as if you have a lump in your throat
  • Food that sticks in your cheeks or the roof of your mouth

If you or someone you care for has experienced any of these symptoms, speak with a healthcare professional who may refer you to a Speech Language Pathologist.

Visit the American Speech Language and Hearing Association (ASHA) website for more information on dysphagia or to locate a Speech Language Pathologist.

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*Clinically shown to improve swallowing safety by reducing the risk of aspiration compared to thin liquid in dysphagia patients.

Leonard RJ, et al. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2014;114:590-594.