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Dysphagia (dis-fey-juh) - What Does That Mean?

By Angie Brunson, MS, CCC-SLP
Speech Language Pathologist

Dysphagia is the term used to describe difficulty swallowing that may result from a variety of causes. This is the term used when someone consistently has difficulty with chewing, moving food around in the mouth or keeping food or liquids in the mouth. This involves what we call the oral phase of the swallow; this also includes our sense of taste and production of enough saliva in the mouth to mix with our food which is very important when eating.

Some people may have difficulty getting the swallow started or having food get “stuck” in the throat or airway which can be very frightening for the person as well as those around the dinner table! This results in coughing, throat clearing, or potentially choking in which the airway is completely blocked and the person is unable to breathe, speak, or cough. It is time for the Heimlich maneuver! (which everyone should learn, especially if one has children!) I have had to perform the Heimlich on my son while 5 months pregnant as well as my father. Thankfully I knew what to do!

Everyone “strangles” from time to time especially if engaged in conversation and suddenly something becomes very funny. This is due to the food or liquid entering the airway and into the lungs. However If this is a frequent occurrence there could be a more serious problem. This should be discussed with a physician and referred to a speech language pathologist for a complete evaluation. If dysphagia is not evaluated and left untreated, depending on severity, there is risk of choking, weight loss, dehydration, and/or the development of aspiration pneumonia. There also may be the avoidance of meals due to embarrassment or fear of have a “choking spell” in the midst of people. Eating is a huge part of our lives and part of social gathering with family, friends or co-workers. The person with dysphagia can become very isolated.

Some possible causes of dysphagia:

  • Stroke
  • Traumatic Brain Injury
  • Neuromuscular Illnesses
  • Head and neck cancer as well as radiation and/or surgery to the head/neck area
  • Trauma from intubation
  • Deconditioning/weakness
  • Certain medications

Depending on the cause of the dysphagia, there are treatment modalities very effective for treating and improving the overall quality of life of a patient. If you suspect you have dysphagia, speak with your physician first and then look for a qualified speech language pathologist.