What is dysphagia?
Dysphagia is a swallowing disorder that causes difficulties in or an inability to swallow liquids and solids. It affects people of varying ages and is often caused by a malfunction in the muscles of the head and neck. Its origins may thus be mechanical, neurologic or muscular. The complications linked to such a disorder may lead to aspiration pneumonia: the accidental passage of food or drink into the trachea during swallowing and/or oral secretions that go directly into the trachea. Moreover, chronic dysphasia may even lead to malnutrition accompanied by weight loss, depressed immunity, etc.
What are the clinical signs?
Numerous signs and symptoms can be linked to dysphasia depending on the different mechanisms in play. These include:
- Difficulty controlling food in the mouth with food, drinks or even saliva coming out through the lips.
- Difficulties in chewing food.
- Difficulties in swallowing food, drinks and/or saliva.
- Pain during the act of swallowing.
- A sensation of food getting stuck in the throat.
- Episodes of cough when drinking and/or eating, or even after a meal.
- Wet, gurgly sounds while swallowing.
- Frequent lung infections.
- Weight loss.
- Meals requiring increased effort and additional time.
How to act?
As soon as the above-mentioned symptoms start to appear, it is important to consult a health professional that will evaluate the patient in order to provide them with the medical and therapeutic care that will help them drink and eat. In fact, the patient will require help for two reasons. Firstly, to prevent dehydration and malnutrition, and secondly, to avoid the passage of foods or liquids into the lungs which could lead to aspiration pneumonia.
The treatment of dysphasia must be led by a multidisciplinary team, namely an ENT doctor, a speech therapist and a nutritionist who will control the calorific intake of the patient. Obviously, in some cases, other specialist such as physical therapists and a gastroenterologist will participate in the care of the patient.
Regarding the role of the speech therapist in the treatment of dysphagia, compensatory and adaptation techniques are adopted:
- Compensatory techniques do not heal dysphagia but rather help affected individuals feed themselves (example: changing the position of the head while swallowing; using adapted material for the intake of food such as spoons, substances that modify the texture of foods, etc.).
- Adaptation techniques which consist of reinforcement of the muscles used to chew. These exercises lead to an improvement in the capacity to swallow and may even help, in certain cases, eliminate dysphagia.