Dysphagia refers to swallowing disorders that range from mild to severe and make eating and drinking difficult. It is estimated that approximately ten-million Americans are diagnosed with dysphagia each year, so the first component to realize is that people are not alone in their struggles to adjust to living with it. There are support groups and counsellors ready to offer advice, stories, and coping mechanisms for newly diagnosed patients.
Who Are Diagnosed?
The most common people diagnosed are older adults due to their increased risks of stroke, Parkinson’s disease, injuries from falls, and wear and tear on the esophagus. Throat cancer treatments that are more likely to be diagnosed later in life can also cause dysphagia. The Mayo Clinic notes that cases in younger people are typically the result of an accident or injury that leads to the brain or spinal cord damage, muscular dystrophy, treatment for cancer, or multiple sclerosis.
Recognizing the most common symptoms is essential because some can be attributed to other factors by mistake. This can lead to a delay in seeking medical attention which may cause more damage. The National Foundation of Swallowing Disorders offers a free brochure to educate people about what to watch for while indicating that symptoms do vary. Coughing during eating or drinking is a symptom that is often dismissed as food going down the wrong way. If the issue happens frequently, see a doctor.
Difficulty, pain, or extra time needed to chew, or swallow is another common symptom, along with the feeling that food or liquids are stuck in the middle of the throat. Again, a single occurrence may be due to eating quickly, but frequent occurrences require medical attention. Weight loss or dehydration are signs of a decrease in intake. This is often a way to avoid the problem or the pain. Chest congestion after eating or frequent pneumonia may indicate a swallowing disorder.
Depending on the cause of the dysphagia, early treatments are typically non-invasive and minor. A diagnosis is not as devasting as it may seem at first. Listen carefully to recommendations before beginning to panic. A referral to a speech therapist gets the treatment plan(s) started. That professional will assess the situation and discuss options. There are simple exercises and techniques that can be taught to the patient and someone who will be able to assist him. That can be a spouse, caregiver, parent, or older child.
Exercises are designed to strengthen the muscles used during the chewing and swallowing process. The tongue, the tendons, and ligaments of the jaw, the uvula, the diaphragm, and the esophagus are targeted as necessary. These will need to be repeated every day to maximize progress and success. Techniques may include relaxation methods before eating or drinking, placing food and liquids at the back of the tongue before attempting to swallow, and allotting more time for meals and snacks, among others. Dietary changes may be suggested but that is not common.
The biggest problems are liquids and thin foods, such as soups, stews, and accompanying sauces. Thickening these items mean people can continue to enjoy their favorite foods without risking aspirating or choking. The most important component to consider regarding thickening products is that they are not all the same. Most are clumpy and change the taste slightly as they thicken due to corn starch as the main ingredient. SimplyThick Nectar packets thicken with xanthan gum that does not change the taste or become clumpy. Beer, wine, and soda taste the same, as do French onion soup and steak sauce.
Learning the basics about dysphagia and how to live with it will make life easier and reduce the stress and anxiety that follows a new diagnosis. Resources are available from the doctor, speech therapist, and reputable websites. Individual packets are discrete and only take seconds to make fluids thick while out in public.