Did you know that we swallow more than 900 times a day? Swallowing is a complicated and delicate reflex that is essential to everyday life. We need to coordinate the muscles in our cheeks, jaw, lips, tongue and throat (26 muscles in total!) Our swallow begins to develop right from when we were born and we use these skills throughout out life.
What happens when something goes wrong? With so many muscles having to work together in perfect time, you may not be surprised to hear that swallowing problems are not uncommon. Dysphagia (dis-fay-ja) is the word we use to describe swallowing problems. These problems can occur anywhere within the swallowing process, and can lead to much larger issues than just discomfort or coughing – malnutrition, pneumonia, choking, social isolation. Swallowing problems can be much more than just, “going down the wrong way.” They can range from food, fluid, or saliva leaking out of the mouth to material entering the airway and lungs.
Who Can Have Dysphagia
Dysphagia can affect people from all ages and walks of life and can occur for many different reasons. Babies born premature, people with traumatic brain injuries, people who have suffered a stroke, those born with abnormalities of the head and neck, or people with degenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s disease or Motor Neurone Disease can all suffer from dysphagia.
Signs of Dysphagia
So what should we look out for? For most people, the first signs of dysphagia often presents as coughing, choking, the feeling of food going down the wrong way or getting stuck in the throat, or gagging when eating. People with dysphagia may begin to lose weight, avoid food situations, or suffer from constant or recurring chest infections.
What To Do
If you or someone you know is experiencing some or all of these symptoms, there are things that can be done to help. Visiting your GP can be a good place to start, and they may connect you with a Speech Pathologist. Speech Pathologists can assess your swallow, and then work with you to develop strategies to help make mealtimes easier. These can range from using modified plates or cups, modifying foods and fluids, or compensatory manoeuvres. Dysphagia is a common problem, and reaching out is the first step towards making mealtimes a more comfortable and enjoyable experience.
For more information, contact your GP or arrange a consultation with one of our Speech Language Pathologists.