Swallowing disorders make eating and drinking difficult

If you have a swallowing disorder (also called dysphagia), it can be tough to eat and drink normally. This can cause nutritional deficiencies and even increase your risk for accidentally breathing in food or liquids.

Swallowing disorders can happen at different points in the process of swallowing, including:

  • Oral phase – When you are chewing or moving foods from your mouth towards your throat.
  • Pharyngeal phase – When you a starting to swallow, sending food into your throat and closing off your airway so that you don’t aspirate (breathe in) a piece of food.
  • Esophageal phase – When your body is squeezing the food through your esophagus and toward your stomach.

Swallowing disorders are often caused by damage to the nerves that help control swallowing. This can happen due to:

  • Stroke
  • Brain or spinal cord injury
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease

Swallowing disorders can also be related to oral or esophageal cancer.

What are the signs of swallowing disorders?

If you have a swallowing disorder, you may notice signs or symptoms like:

  • Needing to take more time to chew your food or having to swallow more slowly
  • Having a gurgling, congested-sounding voice after eating
  • Coughing when you’re eating or drinking (or right after)
  • Getting food or drinks stuck in your mouth or leak out of your mouth

Over time, not being able to eat and drink normally can lead to weight loss or dehydration. Accidentally breathing in food can cause lung infections like pneumonia.

How are swallowing disorders treated?

If you think you may have a swallowing disorder, talk to your doctor. Your doctor will ask you questions about your symptoms and will do a physical exam.

Your doctor may refer you to a speech-language pathologist with special experience diagnosing and treating swallowing disorders. The speech-language pathologist may watch you eat to see where the problem is. You may also need other tests like an endoscopy or a special X-ray taken while you’re eating.

Your speech-language pathologist can work with you to build a treatment plan for your disorder. This might include special exercises, changing your diet and/or treating the underlying cause of your disorder.

To schedule an appointment with a specialist at Main Line Health, call 1.866.CALL.MLH (1.866.225.5654) or use our secure online appointment request form.