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Swallowing difficulties

What are swallowing difficulties?

If someone has difficulty swallowing food and fluids, they might have a condition known as dysphagia. As well as being uncomfortable and sometimes painful, it’s potentially dangerous as, if it’s difficult to swallow, choking and lung problems, including pneumonia can develop. It’s also difficult to eat and drink enough. Malnutrition and dehydration are associated with dysphagia and can results in weight loss.

What is the cause?

Unfortunately, there is no single cause of dysphagia and swallowing difficulties can affect people of all ages. Commonly associated with dementia and Parkinson’s disease, it can also affect people who’ve had strokes, or those who’ve had surgery around the neck.

How is swallowing affected?

"Normal" swallowing is a complex business. During each swallow, over 31 pairs of muscles swing into action.

Swallowing has four distinct phases: from taking food into the mouth, to the automatic responses of the body that safely move it through the throat and into the gut. A single, complete swallow normally lasts between eight and twenty seconds. For older people, it can take longer.

Difficulties can occur at any point during the swallow. This is why dysphagia can be caused by many things.

What can be done?

The first, most important step in managing dysphagia is to visit a doctor for a full diagnosis as soon as possible.

There are ways to manage dysphagia. Surgery is sometimes possible. Exercise programmes can help train specific muscles involved in swallowing. People with swallowing difficulties can also learn new ways to swallow, suchas changing the position of their head.

Another effective way of managing dysphagia is to change the consistency and texture of food and drink. A ‘texture modified diet’ makes it easier for people with difficulties to control their swallow.

Health care professionals are trained to assess and treat swallowing difficulties. If you notice any of the signs of the dysphagia, visit your doctor as soon as possible.