Tough pill to swallow: Dysphagia and how its treated

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We swallow 600 times a day and never notice until we struggle with choking, but sometimes swallowing can be scary, and this condition is called Dysphagia.

It’s like trying to swallow a big piece of apple without chewing it enough.

We swallow once a minute while awake and three times an hour while asleep, but for 15 million Americans with dysphagia, throat muscles weaken, the hole doesn’t close and they choke on saliva or food.

It’s important to avoid food getting into the lungs.

“As the muscular weakness in the upper end of the swallow starts, they start to squeeze less, push less, move less, and it becomes cyclical, and you get what’s called a diffuse atrophy,” said Giselle Carnaby, professor at UT Health and Science Center.

Susan Craig has Parkinson’s and manages muscle strength with boxing and stays active by traveling, but just like body muscles, weak oral muscles lead to real problems.

“We know that a good 40% of the general elderly population will experience some of these difficulties,” Carnaby said.

So, Craig is in Carnaby’s rehab, swallowing more frequently and mastering meds by putting pills in applesauce for easier consumption.

“She’s teaching you how to swallow. It has nothing to do with your bite size and chewing. All that is fine,” Craig said.

If you experience pain or difficulty swallowing, Professor Carnaby advises you to consult a swallowing specialist, swallow more frequently to build strength and manage underlying conditions like acid reflux and COPD. Otherwise…

“You become less mobile, you become more fragile, you’re then more susceptible to diseases because you don’t have a healthy immune system,” Carnaby said.

Other treatment techniques are also used to help with swallowing, including neurostimulation, especially for stroke patients who struggle with eating.

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