Speech Therapy Can Provide Help to Those Who Have Trouble Swallowing
Many things, ranging from stroke to old age, can create swallowing difficulties. When you or someone you know has trouble swallowing, the sooner you see a medical professional about it, the better. This provides more time to get the therapy needed to correct the issue, and prevents the issue from going on too long so therapy can be more effective to treat it.
There are a variety of swallowing disorders, but oropharyngeal dysphagia is among the most common, affecting an estimated 300,000 to 600,000 patients each year in the United States. The elderly population is at the highest risk, with an estimated 10 to 30% of the population affected by dysphagia.
The condition can be caused by damage in the brain from stroke, brain or spine injury, various neurological disorders, cancer and treatment for cancers in the head and neck, problems with the immune system and more. As we age, muscles atrophy, so this is yet another risk factor.
The symptoms of oropharyngeal dysphagia include:
- Painful swallowing
- Unexplained weight loss
- Coughing or choking while eating a meal
- Feeling as though food is stuck in the throat/chest
- Problems starting to swallow
- Problems controlling food in the mouth
- Problems controlling saliva
- Recurrent pneumonia
If you experience these symptoms, or any combination thereof, it’s time to schedule an appointment with your primary care provider. At that point, your doctor will likely refer you to a speech language pathologist (SLP) who specializes in swallowing disorders.
The SLP will look at and test the muscles in your mouth and throat. More advanced testing may also be done to allow the SLP to see what’s causing the dysphagia, to develop a better treatment plan.
Treatment plans include a variety of rehabilitation exercises, to strengthen the muscles causing the problem. These exercises vary depending on what the core of the problem is. For example, if the problem is controlling food in the mouth, causing pockets of food sit in the mouth, then exercises to strengthen the tongue can help. If the airway is the problem, exercises to strengthen those muscles to allow the airway to close completely is the best treatment.
Speech therapy can be done on an inpatient or outpatient basis. Outpatient therapy can even be done as telespeech therapy, where the patient stays at home and meets with their SLP via the Internet. Expect therapy to range from four to eight weeks, but don’t be surprised if a longer period of time is required. You may go to therapy once or twice a week, depending on the severity of the issues causing difficulty swallowing. You will be asked to complete exercises at home between sessions to speed up the recovery process so you can restore function faster.