Difficulty swallowing (dysphagia), is a symptom that often accompanies many neurological disorders and can be an alarming development for a hospice patient. The problem can occur at any stage of the normal swallowing process as food and liquid move from the mouth, down the back of the throat, and into the stomach. Whether one has a total inability to swallow or coughing or choking when food or liquid enters the windpipe, (aspiration), this is a concerning symptom, often requiring treatment. When aspiration is frequent a person can be at risk of developing pneumonia. Food may get “stuck” in the throat or individuals may drool because they cannot swallow their saliva. Many neurological conditions can cause swallowing difficulties; stroke (the most common cause of dysphagia), traumatic brain injury, cerebral palsy, Parkinson disease and other degenerative neurological disorders such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease), multiple sclerosis, Huntington disease and myasthenia gravis and muscular dystrophy.
Treatment for dysphagia often includes changing a person’s diet by adding thickeners. Therapeutic interventions may also employ training of alternative ways to eat and chew that reduce the risk for aspiration. Occasionally drug therapy that helps the neurological disorder can also help dysphagia. More severely disabled individuals may require surgery or the insertion of feeding tubes.
The prognosis for dysphagia sufferers depends on the type of swallowing problem and the course of the neurological disorder that produces it. In some cases, dysphagia can be corrected by implementing dietary changes. In others, especially when the dysphagia is causing aspiration and preventing adequate nutrition and causing weight loss, more aggressive intervention such as a feeding tube might be necessary. For those with progressive degenerative neurological disorders, dysphagia is often just one in a cluster of symptoms and disabilities that need treatment.
Being educated about the various symptoms that you or your loved one may be facing is important and specific concerns should be addressed by your medical professional. The team members at Anew Home Care are here to assist you with questions like these and so much more.