For many of us, being able to eat and drink safely is something we don’t actively think about. But for people who have trouble swallowing, mealtimes can be fraught with difficulty. And it’s not only breakfast, lunch and dinner—simply trying to swallow medication can pose a challenge.
The medical term for swallowing difficulties is dysphagia. You may not have heard of dysphagia—as it is under-diagnosed and undertreated in Canada—but it can pose a serious risk to your health. Read on for more information on the condition.
What is Dysphagia?
When you eat and drink, the nerves and muscles in your mouth, throat and esophagus work to move solids and liquids from your mouth to your stomach. Dysphagia is usually a sign of a problem with the coordination and/or strength of these muscles and nerves.
People with dysphagia may gag, choke, cough or experience pain when swallowing. Sometimes, individuals with dysphagia will experience drooling or “pocketing” where food and thick fluids are left over in the mouth and throat after swallowing. Symptoms can come and go, and they may worsen or improve over time.
More serious side effects include aspiration (when food or liquid that should go into the stomach goes into the lungs instead), malnutrition or dehydration. In the long-term, dysphagia sufferers may lose weight because they’re not getting adequate nutrition.
Who’s at Risk?
Dysphagia is typically caused by an illness or condition that affects the muscles and nerves in the tongue, mouth and throat. Individuals that may be at risk include:
- People who have had a stroke
- Those with disorders of the nervous system, such as Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, ALS and muscular dystrophy
- People with head and neck conditions, including head and spinal cord injuries
- Older adults
- People with dementia
- Individuals with abnormal growths or structural changes in the mouth, throat and esophagus
Dysphagia is estimated to affect around eight per cent of the population—that’s approximately 2.9 million people in Canada. Plus, the prevalence can be higher depending on the population and the environment. Evidence from around the world tells us the prevalence of dysphagia in older persons in the community has been estimated to be approximately 27 per cent, and this increases to approximately 48 per cent in hospitalized older patients. Dysphagia can happen to anyone, but it mostly affects older adults and those affected by brain, muscle or nervous system disorders.
How Can You Manage Dysphagia?
Management depends on the cause of the disorder, but generally involves minimizing choking and aspiration risk. For some individuals, one way to do that is by exercising your swallowing muscles as some exercises can help strengthen and coordinate your muscles to help you swallow. A speech language pathologist can advise if exercises will work for you or your loved one.
Changing the consistency of the foods you eat can often make a big difference. Thickened drinks and texture-modified foods can slow down the movement of liquids in the mouth and throat and make food easier to chew and swallow. A healthcare professional such as a dietitian, speech language pathologist or occupational therapist can help you manage your dysphagia and, if right for you, will recommend how to modify the texture of your foods and fluids.
Look for xanthan gum-based thickeners, such as ThickenUp® Clear to help thicken fluids. Clear and odourless ThickenUp® Clear thickening powder has been shown to help improve swallowing efficacy compared to thin liquids. Plus, unlike starch-based products, ThickenUp® Clear remains lump-free and won’t affect the taste of foods.
If you or a loved one are concerned about your risk for dysphagia, check out this online self-assessment tool and be sure to speak to your health care professional about the results.
For more tips on managing dysphagia, go to DysphagiaCare.ca.
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