Most of us have experienced difficulty in swallowing at some point. We may have coughed or choked on a piece of food, or felt something “going down the wrong tube.”
We may have experienced painful swallowing when we’ve had a cold or a sore throat, and avoided certain foods or liquids that were more painful to swallow. Pills may have felt as if they got stuck when we tried to swallow them.
In most instances, these encounters with swallowing difficulty are temporary and do not have lasting negative effects on our well-being. However, for some individuals, difficulty in swallowing is an ongoing issue that can have a significant impact on health and quality of life.
Swallowing disorders, known as dysphagia, can occur at any age. June is National Dysphagia Awareness Month. Dysphagia can result from a variety of causes, including neurologic diseases such as stroke or Parkinson’s disease; structural abnormalities, such as head and neck tumors or trauma to the head and neck; and pulmonary disease.
About one in 25 adults and 9 in 1,000 children between the ages of 3 to 17 experience dysphagia each year. It is most common in older adults, although dysphagia is not a normal consequence of aging.
Dysphagia can have devastating consequences. If an individual coughs frequently when attempting to eat or drink, he may fail to eat or drink enough to meet his needs. In addition, dysphagia can result in pulmonary complications, including aspiration pneumonia. About one-third of individuals with dysphagia develop aspiration pneumonia, and 60,000 individuals die each year from complications related to aspiration pneumonia.
Dysphagia can also affect quality of life. Eating and drinking are parts of our everyday lives. We celebrate birthdays or special occasions by eating cake; we eat at our favorite restaurant with friends or families.
Someone who is experiencing dysphagia often cannot participate in these activities, and this can lead to social isolation, anxiety and/or depression. Even if the individual is able to take some food or liquid by mouth, if he coughs frequently or needs to regurgitate food or liquid immediately after attempting to swallow them, he may become embarrassed to the point of avoiding eating and drinking in public.
If you are experiencing any difficulty in swallowing, notify your doctor, who can then refer you to a speech-language pathologist, who can assess your swallowing and make recommendations for treatment, if needed.
Speech-language pathologists receive special training in assessing and treating swallowing disorders. It is especially important to seek the services of a speech-language pathologist who has specialty certification (BCS-S) in swallowing and swallowing disorders. To find a specialist, search Swallowingdisorders.org.
Debra M. Suiter is director of the University of Kentucky Voice and Swallow Clinic.