Dysphagia is the medical term for difficulties when swallowing. It takes more time and effort to move food or liquid from the mouth to the stomach when a person has dysphagia. It may also be associated with pain (odynophagia) and in some cases, swallowing may be impossible.
Other signs of dysphagia include: coughing or choking when eating or drinking; bringing food back up; a sensation that food is stuck in the throat or chest; persistent drooling of saliva.
What causes it?
Dysphagia is usually caused by another underlying health condition such as one that affects the nervous system (e.g. a stroke, head injury or dementia), certain types of cancer, or gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GORD). It can also occur in children as a result of a developmental or learning disability.
Although anyone can be affected by dysphagia, there is an increased risk in older people whose muscles are weaker when swallowing, or who may suffer from neurological conditions.
Types of dysphagia
The location of the cause will determine the type of dysphagia diagnosed. Problems in the mouth or throat can lead to oropharyngeal or “high” dysphagia, whereas problems further down in the oesophagus can lead to oesophageal or “low” dysphagia. You can read more about these two different types of dysphagia here.
How is it treated?
As with any medical condition, treatment for dysphagia varies according to the type and cause of the swallowing disorder, as well as its severity. This can range from simple exercises that help to coordinate the swallowing muscles or re-stimulate the nerves that trigger the swallowing reflex, to the insertion of a special tube to open and stretch the oesophagus. There are also medications available that can reduce stomach acid as well as surgical procedures.
In the most severe cases, a special liquid diet may be recommended or a feeding tube that bypasses the part of the swallowing mechanism that isn’t working properly.
The dysphagia diet
There are resources available, including eating plans and cook books to help a person with dysphagia be able to eat, but also to ensure they continue to get the right nutrition.
The diet includes foods of different textures and consistencies, also different approaches for levels of dysphagia.
Where you can get further help
Your GP is your first port of call when experiencing signs and symptoms of dysphagia. They will then give a full medical examination and a referral if necessary. They should also give you help and advice.
For people with more severe dysphagia, eating and drinking can be a painful and difficult task that proves stressful for everyone involved. It may be worth looking into home care, which will provide extra help and support around the home as often as is needed.
More information about Dysphagia can be found at http://dysphagia.org.uk/
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