But I talk just fine: On Dysphagia

Did you know June is an important month for many stroke survivors? This is a month dedicated to celebrating awareness and education of two common stroke side effects, aphasia and dysphagia.  

Dysphagia (dis-fay-juh) describes difficulty or discomfort swallowing. Over 50% of stroke survivors experience dysphagia. Although many people do recover quickly, 11-13% of stroke survivors still experience difficulty swallowing after six months. Dysphagia increases a person’s risk of health complications such as choking, poor nutrition, chest infections, or dehydration, but also has a negative impact on quality of life. 

Swallowing occurs in three different stages, the oral (mouth), pharyngeal (throat), and esophageal (esophagus). Dysphagia can occur at any one, or in a combination of these stages. Normal swallowing requires use of 30-50 muscle groups and appropriate function of the brain stem, basal ganglia, thalamus, limbic system, cerebellum, and the motor and sensory cortices. Stroke survivors are prone to dysphagia because of changes in muscle strength, timing and coordination, and the brain.

Although symptoms of dysphagia will likely be highly individual, common symptoms include: 

  • Drooling
  • Difficulty moving food/liquid from the mouth to throat
  • Taking multiple swallows to “clear” food/liquid from the throat
  • Changes in voice quality with eating/drinking
  • Pain with swallowing
  • Sensation of food/liquid becoming “stuck” in the throat
  • Feeling of a lump in the throat
  • Coughing, throat clearing, or choking episodes associated with eating/drinking
  • Decreased interest in eating/drinking, extended meal times

Speech-Language Pathologists (SLP) are specially trained to diagnose and treat swallowing disorders. If you believe you or a loved one are experiencing dysphagia, please ask your physician to connect you with an SLP. Earlier treatment post-stroke results in faster and more complete recovery.

Treatment will start with a clinical swallow evaluation. Based on the results, an instrumental swallowing exam should be recommended. Two examples of instrumental exams include a Modified Barium Swallow Study (MBSS) and a Fiberoptic Endoscopic Evaluation of Swallowing (FEES). If an esophageal dysphagia is suspected you may be referred to a Gastroenterologist who can recommend different imaging studies. 

These evaluations will help your SLP work with you to develop a plan for your recovery. This may include exercises for your swallowing muscles, strategies to use while eating/drinking, or temporary changes to diet. Any exercise program or strategies should be recommended and completed under the direction of a qualified SLP as improper use can increase dysphagia and potential complications. Proper treatment of dysphagia will help to minimize risks of health complications while allowing you or your loved one to return to normal eating/drinking habits.

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Mary Burns, MS, CCC-SLP has been working as a medical Speech-Language Pathologist since 2014. She specializes in working with adults with swallowing or communication disorders, especially after a stroke.

Working across the continuum of care gave Mary a unique perspective on strengths and needs in the rehabilitation system. This developed her passion for advocacy of person-centered care and the inclusion of patient and community education as a part of the recovery process.

Mary was drawn to Stroke Awareness Oregon because of their dedication to breaking down barriers that allow stroke survivors and their loved ones to access the services they need.  She can be reached at (541) 241-8903 or contact@overlandslp.com