Swallowing Disorder Basics

The numbers: The prevalence of dysphagia is unknown, but Epidemiologic studies indicate that the numbers may be as high as 22% of the population over 50 years of age. Several studies conclude that between 300,000 and 600,000 individuals in the United States are affected by neurogenic dysphagia each year. Plus, 10 million Americans are evaluated each year for swallowing difficulties. Because this disorder cuts across so many diseases, dysphagia is poorly understood and often under diagnosed.

Our society revolves around food and meals. For people with dysphagia, life as you know it ceases to exist. Dysphagia can cause depression, low self esteem, lost wages, poor social performance, and increasing health risks such as aspirating pneumonia. Working through the mental aspects of this disorder is in many ways as challenging as addressing the physical limitations.

Dysphagia symptoms: Each person is different, but some of the common symptoms of this disorder are as follows:

  • coughing during or right after eating or drinking
  • wet or gurgly sounding voice during or after eating or drinking
  • extra effort or time needed to chew or swallow
  • food or liquid leaking from the mouth or getting stuck in the mouth
  • recurring pneumonia or chest congestion after eating
  • weight loss or dehydration from not being able to eat enough

Diagnostic tests for dysphagia: These tests are generally run by speech-language swallowing pathologist. The most commonly used tests are:

  • Modified barium swallow (patient eats or drinks food or liquid with barium in it and the swallowing process is viewed on an x-ray (search Google for “modified barium swallow study” for dozens of articles and videos showing this exam)
  • Endoscope assessment – using a lighted scope inserted through the nose the swallow can be viewed on a screen (search Google for “endoscope assessment” for dozens of articles and YouTube for dozens of videos showing this exam)

Dysphagia treatment: Treatment depends on the cause, symptoms, and type of swallowing problem. A speech-language pathologist may recommend:

  • specific swallowing treatment (e.g., exercises to improve muscle movement)
  • positions or strategies to help the individual swallow more effectively
  • specific food and liquid textures that are easier and safer to swallow

Related topics:

How to Help: Support groups, sharing your story, raising awareness, funding

Finding help: Locating a specialist in your neighborhood

The iPhone iSwallow(TM) app: A free personal rehabilitation assistant (PRA) app with 15 exercises to be used under the guidance of your medical team

Quality of living: Tips on food and nutrition

Anatomy of swallowing video: Courtesy of primal online learning