Woman holding her throat

Dysphagia and Speech Therapy: What You Need to Know if You Have Trouble Swallowing

Many adults take the act of eating and swallowing for granted. For those with dysphagia, however, swallowing becomes difficult and painful, and eating can be a real struggle.

Dysphagia is the medical term for difficulty swallowing. Although occasional swallowing difficulties are normal from time to time, such as eating too quickly or not chewing well enough, persistent dysphagia is cause for concern and may require medical treatment. Here’s what you need to know about this diagnosis and how speech therapy can help.

What Causes Dysphagia?

Although dysphagia can occur at any age, it is more common in older adults. There are several potential causes of dysphagia, so sometimes it can be difficult to pinpoint its origins exactly. Typically, this swallowing disorder results from damage or weakness in the nerves or muscles that control chewing and swallowing movements. Common causes of dysphagia include:

  • Poor dental hygiene or ill-fitting dentures.
  • Cognitive disorders, such as dementia or Alzheimer’s.
  • Stroke.
  • Acid reflux (GERD).
  • Radiation therapy.
  • Mouth, throat or esophagus cancer.
  • Certain medications.

Symptoms of Dysphagia

The symptoms of dysphagia can become more severe over time. It’s important to keep a close eye on your loved one before, during and after meals to make sure there are no issues with chewing or swallowing difficulties.

If you see the following signs occur around mealtime, it’s important to discuss these issues with a medical professional.

  • Pain during swallowing.
  • Difficulty swallowing.
  • Gagging, choking or coughing when attempting to swallow.
  • Feeling that food is stuck in the throat or chest.
  • Drooling.
  • Heartburn.
  • Hoarseness or a “gurgly” voice after eating or drinking.
  • Unexpected weight loss.

Tips for Dealing With Dysphagia

If your loved one is living with dysphagia, there are several strategies and exercises you can try to improve the act of swallowing and make it easier for them to enjoy mealtime.

  • Make sure your loved one is sitting upright while eating.
  • Allot ample time for each meal to allow time for complete chewing.
  • Schedule meals during times of the day when your loved one is alert and cooperative.
  • Try smaller, more frequent meals throughout the day.
  • Reduce distractions during mealtimes so your loved one can focus on eating.
  • Thicken liquids with pureed fruit or vegetables or try a commercial thickener. Thicker liquids are less likely to cause problems with choking and coughing.
  • Consult with a speech-language pathologist or a registered dietician for advice on eating strategies and meeting nutritional needs.

What is Speech Therapy, and How Can It Help With Dysphagia?

Speech therapists, also known as speech-language pathologists, are trained to evaluate and treat swallowing disorders. They can provide targeted exercises and techniques to improve swallowing function, reduce the risk of aspiration and enhance overall safety and efficiency during meals.

Speech therapy sessions for dysphagia typically begin with a thorough evaluation of the individual’s swallowing abilities. Based on the assessment, the speech therapist designs a personalized treatment plan. This plan may include various exercises, posture adjustments and diet modifications tailored to the specific needs of the patient.

Frequently Asked Questions:

Can speech therapy completely cure dysphagia? The outcome of speech therapy for dysphagia varies based on the cause and severity of the swallowing disorder. In many cases, speech therapy can significantly improve swallowing function, leading to safer and more comfortable eating.

Is speech therapy the only treatment for dysphagia? The treatment approach for dysphagia can vary. Speech therapy is a common and effective intervention, but in some cases, medical or surgical interventions might be necessary. Speech therapists often work collaboratively with other healthcare professionals to provide comprehensive care.

How long does a typical course of speech therapy for dysphagia last? The duration of speech therapy for dysphagia varies based on the individual’s progress and the underlying cause of the swallowing disorder. Some patients may require a few weeks of therapy, while others might benefit from long-term or intermittent sessions.

Is speech therapy covered by insurance for dysphagia treatment? Speech therapy for dysphagia is often covered by health insurance plans. However, coverage varies, so it’s essential to check with the insurance provider to understand the extent of coverage and any out-of-pocket costs.

Find Help at ACV Health

If you or a loved one is having trouble swallowing, it’s important to seek medical advice as soon as possible. At ACV Health, an outreach of Advent Christian Village, our skilled and dedicated professional team of therapists has a reputation for providing quality care in a caring, friendly environment.

In addition to treating swallowing and speech disorders, ACV Health specializes in other short and long-term rehabilitation services for a wide range of conditions, including injuries, post-stroke rehab, mobility issues and joint replacements. We are currently accepting new patients over 18 years for rehabilitation services, including speech therapy, at our Live Oak office. Become a patient today.

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