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Dysphagia (Swallowing Disorders)

Dysphagia refers to the feeling of difficulty passing food or liquid from the mouth to the stomach. Dysphagia happens when the muscles in the mouth and/or throat become weak after the illness or injury.

  • Some people with dysphagia have difficulty chewing food and moving it around in their mouth.
  • This happens because their jaw and tongue can’t move as quickly or as accurately as they used to.
  • Other people with dysphagia have difficulty actually swallowing the food. It might take them a long time to start swallowing after they are finished chewing. Or food may stay in the throat, even after the person has swallowed.
  • These problems can make food “go down the wrong way” – into the windpipe instead of the food tube to the stomach. This happens because the throat muscles don’t work as well as they used to.
  • Sometimes the dysphagia is very severe and the person will need to be fed through a tube in their stomach. If the dysphagia is mild, the person may only have difficulty with certain foods or drinks.
What Causes Swallowing Disorders?

It may be due to simple causes such as poor teeth, ill fitting dentures, or even a common cold. One of the most common causes of dysphagia is gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), where stomach acids move up the esophagus. 

Some illnesses or injuries can cause damage to part of the brain. A stroke is an example, when a blood vessel in the brain gets blocked or when it bursts.

The result can be many different problems, depending on the part and amount of the brain that is damaged. One of these problems is dysphagia.

Other causes may include:
  • progressive neurologic disorder
  •  the presence of a tracheostomy tube
  • a paralyzed or unmoving vocal cord
  • a tumour in the mouth, throat or esophagus
  • surgery in the head, neck or esophageal areas

What are the Symptoms of Dysphagia? 

Symptoms of swallowing disorders may include:

  • drooling
  • a feeling that food or liquid is sticking in the throat during or after a meal
  • discomfort in the throat or chest
  • a sensation of a foreign body or “lump” in the throat
  • weight loss and inadequate nutrition due to prolonged or more significant problems with swallowing
  • coughing or choking caused by food, liquid or saliva
  • small amounts of food, liquid or saliva being sucked into the lungs.
What are the Possible Treatments?

Depending on the severity and the cause of the dysphagia, any or all of the following treatments may be indicated:
  • Medication
  • Swallowing Therapy
  • Surgery
  • Special Diet

How to Help

The best thing to do is to speak with the person who has dysphagia and with their speech-language pathologist. They will be able to tell you which foods and drinks are the safest to swallow.

Here are some suggestions to keep in mind when feeding or cooking for a person with dysphagia:

  • Encourage the person to eat slowly. When someone is just learning to walk again, they certainly shouldn't begin by running. It's the same with swallowing.
  • Make sure the person takes small mouthfuls. A large mouthful can make swallowing more dangerous.
  • Encourage the person to take two swallows per mouthful. If there is any food left in the throat, the person can swallow it before it has a chance to accidentally go down the windpipe.
  • Watch the person for any signs of chest infection or pneumonia. If food continually goes down the wrong way, it might cause a chest infection — this should be treated right away.

(Written by Justine Hamilton and Deidre Sperry, speech-language pathologists.  Adapted with their permission for use by OSLA. Revised 2011, ©OSLA.)

Click here for our brochure on Learning About Dysphagia.

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