Dysphagia, or difficulty swallowing food, is a common condition among seniors. The culprits are usually either nerve or muscle problems that make it hard to get the food down to the stomach.
How Swallowing Works
You probably don’t give swallowing a second thought; it’s a natural process that just happens on its own. But it’s actually a pretty complex process. Around 50 pairs of muscles and many more nerves work together to chew your food and move it to from your moth to your stomach. It happens in three stages:
- In the oral phase, the tongue and jaw move the food around your mouth. This stage includes chewing to break down the food into the right size and mix it with saliva for the right texture.
- The pharyngeal phase begins when your tongue pushes the food to the back of your mouth. When the food reaches a certain point, it triggers the swallowing reflex that closes the voice box and airways.
- The esophageal phase is about three seconds long, and involves the food’s passage through your esophagus—the tube that carries food and liquid to the stomach.
When Dysphagia Occurs
If any of the many muscles or nerves involved in this team effort are weakened or otherwise impaired, one or more of the above phases can be disrupted.
Dysphagia is usually a symptom of another condition; it rarely occurs on its own. For example, Parkinson’s disease, a degenerative neurological condition, can cause swallowing difficulties. In another example, stroke or head injury can weaken the oral muscles or affect their coordination.
Difficulty swallowing can cause a range of problems. These can be serious, and even life-threatening. Some of the effects of dysphagia include:
- Weight loss—if you can’t swallow your food, you can’t maintain a healthy weight.
- Choking—if chewing is affected, your food might go down in large pieces and get caught in the airway.
- Aspiration pneumonia—this happens when food gets into the airway in small amounts, stays there, and becomes infected.
- Esophageal weakness—this can cause a pocket to develop outside the esophagus, and trap food there. The food could then become dislodged during sleep, and cause choking or aspiration.
How to Treat Dysphagia
There are different ways to treat dysphagia, depending on the specific cause and kind of swallowing disorder.
If possible, a non-invasive way to treat dysphagia would be to alter the way you consume your food. You may need to change the food texture, temperature, size, or even your posture. Speech therapists who specialize in dysphagia can teach you specific maneuvers designed to keep food away from the airway when swallowing.
In same cases, muscle exercises can strengthen weak facial muscles or improve chewing coordination.
Many times, especially in progressive conditions, surgical insertion of a feeding tube will become necessary. The tube bypasses the weakened part of the tract and delivers nutrients directly to the stomach.
At Regency Nursing, our nurses our experts in care for patients with dysphagia and feeding tubes. Contact us to find out more.