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Trouble swallowing? It may be time to see a Speech Therapist

  • Category: Rehabilitation Services
  • Posted On:
  • Written By: Whitney White, MA, CCC-SLP, Speech and Language Therapist
Trouble swallowing? It may be time to see a Speech Therapist

“May our table be surrounded by our family and our friends, where the stories of our good times are told and never end.” ~ Morris Family Cookbook, ©2009

Amongst the recipes, the Morris Family Cookbook tells the story of my great-grandmother Almey Morris. Her story is based on love of family and great food; the two are inseparable. Whenever family was together, there was always food. Imagine Almey’s heartbreak if she couldn’t partake in the very thing that was bringing her family together, a shared meal.

Each year, approximately one in 25 adults will experience a swallowing problem in the United States. Difficulty with swallowing food or drink can be caused by many different medical conditions such as stroke, Parkinson’s disease, or cancer.

The normal process of swallowing our food and drink is a complex and highly coordinated process that usually takes less than three seconds. Individuals who experience a sudden change in their medical condition are often aware that their ability to swallow has changed. For others, changes may occur slowly over time, making it more difficult to recognize symptoms.

Difficulty swallowing, what clinicians call Dysphagia, can occur at any stage of the swallowing process. Problems may arise as soon as food or liquid is presented to the mouth. Individuals may also experience problems as food or liquid passes through the throat. Signs of trouble in the early stages of swallowing include difficulty chewing and moving food around in the mouth. When individuals experience trouble swallowing in the later stages of the process, signs generally include coughing, throat clearing, and a wet, gurgly voice. Individuals often complain of food getting stuck or feeling fullness in the neck. Again, weak or uncoordinated muscles are often to blame, and food or liquid may fall into the airway, get left behind in small spaces, or fail to pass through the esophagus.

Stroke and other neurological disorders are often the cause of dysphagia. After a stroke, individuals often experience one-sided muscle weakness coupled with poor sensation, which interferes with swallowing. Individuals with Parkinson’s disease may experience uncontrolled movements of the tongue, which interferes with holding, chewing, and moving food in the mouth. Head and neck cancer patients often receive chemotherapy and/or radiation treatment, and in some cases, have parts of their jaw, mouth, and neck removed to eliminate the cancer. It is easy to see how these aggressive forms of treatment can lead to difficulty swallowing.

Regardless of the cause, dysphagia can lead to malnourishment, upper respiratory infections, choking, and even death. Individuals feel less enjoyment when eating or drinking, and may experience embarrassment or isolation in social situations involving eating.

Individuals should be referred to a speech therapist by their doctor if they are having trouble swallowing food, liquids, or medication. To learn more about the Speech Therapy services available at Campbell County Health Rehabilitation Services, visit www.cchwyo.org/speech or call 307.688.8000.