Dysphagia is a swallowing disorder. The afflicted person has problems swallowing solids and liquids, and it takes longer than normal for foods to travel from the mouth to the stomach. They may refuse to eat at all, for fear of choking or end up coughing or vomiting when they do try to eat or drink.
Not surprisingly, dysphagia can lead to malnutrition and aspiration pneumonia if the underlying cause is not treated. The treatment for dysphagia depends on the cause. What is important to note is that dysphagia can sometimes be a symptom of a serious disease.
Difficulties swallowing is a common side effect of Parkinson’s Disease and around 80 percent of patients end up with dysphagia. When a Parkinson’s patient has dysphagia, it makes it much harder for them to take medication and damages their quality of life. In addition, it can lead to nutritional decline and aspiration pneumonia, which is a common cause of death.
ALS is short for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis. Like Parkinson’s Disease, ALS patients get progressively worse, as the nerves that control the muscles deteriorate. Eventually, it affects the patient’s ability to walk, talk, eat, and eventually breathe. Dysphagia in ALS patients begins when the cranial nerves develop lesions, and the diaphragm stops functioning properly. The nerve damage leads to tongue atrophy and problems with the soft palate. The patient eventually passes away from problems associated with malnutrition, dehydration, and respiratory failure.
Many people with MS have trouble swallowing. Some only have issues from time to time; others have ongoing problems. Dysphagia happens when nerves in the brain and spinal cord are damaged. If the damage is mild, dysphagia might not be too much of a problem. The same nerve damage also affects the patient’s speech. Dysphagia can sometimes be an early sign of MS, so it’s important to have it checked out by a doctor.
Dysphagia is a symptom of some types of oral cancer. Cancers of the larynx, esophagus, throat, mouth, tongue, sinuses, salivary glands and any other structure in this region can all cause dysphagia. Dysphagia can be caused by a tumor pressing on the esophagus or obstructing the mouth or throat. It can also be a side effect of cancer treatment – radiation therapy can lead to a narrowing of the swallowing passage, which makes it hard to eat solid food, as well as impair the function of the throat muscles.
Dysphagia can also be a symptom of motor neurone disease, gastroesophageal reflux, brain tumors, COPD, scleroderma, and dementia.
There are things we can do to help make swallowing easier for patients with dysphagia, but the treatment will depend on the underlying cause. Thickeners made from xanthan gum like the SimplyThick thickener from SimplyThick make swallowing liquids much easier and prevent unwanted aspiration.
Feeding tubes are also an option for some patients with severe dysphagia, which can bypass the throat completely and deliver nutrition directly into the stomach.
If you have recently developed dysphagia, speak to your doctor immediately, as it may be caused by an underlying disease.