Nutrition is important but what if you have trouble swallowing? Here’s how Mary Greeley can help.
Swallowing is complex.
Getting each bite from mouth to stomach involves many nerves and 50 pairs of muscles moving food along to the right place while keeping it out of your lungs.
A range of conditions, including stroke, cancer, central nervous system disorders, dementia and even aging, can derail this process, creating a swallowing “deficit,” or difficulty. Clues that you’re having trouble might include gagging or coughing while you eat.
If you are having swallowing issues, there’s a good chance you could be referred to a speech-language pathologist for diagnosis and treatment. A swallow test will help determine the cause of your symptoms, including gagging, coughing, throat clearing or change in vocal quality.
“We evaluate the strength and movement of muscles, observe the patient’s posture while eating, and also test the swallowing itself,” says Emily Fecht, a speech language pathologist with Mary Greeley’s Rehab & Wellness department. “It’s critical to diagnose it as soon as possible, because a swallowing deficit can be very traumatic to the patient.”
Swallowing deficits vary in severity and duration. Treatment depends upon precise diagnosis and location of the problem. If it occurs in the mouth and is due to impaired ability to chew, treatment might include a pureed or ‘soft’ diet, says Fecht. If it occurs at the back of the throat, where you begin to swallow, you face the danger of aspirating or breathing in bits of food or drink. That can lead to choking or pneumonia. In such cases, Fecht may recommend thickening liquids as well as exercises that will strengthen swallowing.
“We care for inpatients and outpatients,” Fecht says. “Depending on the diagnosis, we can help you swallow more safely with the use of swallowing exercises, compensatory strategies and diet modification. We provide a plan of care that includes recommended food preparation. We teach you how to thicken and prepare foods to the recommended thickness.”
If you are concerned that you have a swallowing deficit, please contact your primary care physician to request a referral for a speech therapy consult.