When you or a loved one are diagnosed with dysphagia, you may feel confused, upset, and helpless. While the prospects of dealing with a swallowing disorder may seem overwhelming, you are not alone. In fact, approximately 10 million Americans are evaluated each year with swallowing difficulties1, and there are many valuable resources available to help you better understand the challenges you may face. In addition, there are many effective solutions for helping you manage this condition and continue to live life as normally as possible.
Here are some answers to questions that many newly diagnosed dysphagia patients often ask.
1. What is dysphagia?
While most people take swallowing for granted, it is actually a very complex process. An intricate combination of nerves and muscles work together to help you effectively swallow food and begin the digestion process. Neurological disorders or other physical problems can damage or weaken these nerves or muscles, making the ability to swallow unreliable or impossible altogether. This swallowing difficulty is often referred to as dysphagia.2
2. What causes dysphagia?
While there are many causes for dysphagia, some health conditions may contribute to the disorder, including: head or neck trauma; stroke; Alzheimer’s disease; cancers of the throat, mouth, head or neck; Parkinson’s disease, ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease); and Mutiple sclerosis. Other conditions may also cause dysphagia and your physician(s) can help you understand your specific situation.3
3. What are some of the health risks of dysphagia?
The inability to swallow can lead to inadequate nutrition and hydration, which can also weaken your immune system. This puts dysphagia patients at a higher risk of pneumonia, dehydration and malnutrition, and can increase the difficulty of fighting infections or illnesses. Effectively managing dysphagia will be critical for maintaining your short- and long-term health.4
4. Who can I turn to for help?
While there are many resources available, you may find these professionals helpful for beginning to navigate the challenges of a dysphagia diagnosis:
- Primary Care Provider – He or she can help to assess your overall condition, then refer you to the proper specialist(s) for assistance with your swallowing disorder. It is important to keep your primary care provider up to date with your dysphagia treatments as you move forward, as this condition can affect other aspects of your health.
- Speech Language Pathologist (SLP) – This specialist can help to determine the cause of your swallowing disorder, as well as provide treatments and exercises to help you build strength with your tongue and swallowing reflexes. He or she may also make dietary recommendations and may refer you to a registered dietician for assistance in planning a dysphagia-friendly diet.
- Registered Dietician (RD) – Managing your nutrition will be of critical importance after your dysphagia diagnosis and a registered dietician can help you to determine the appropriate diet consistency, plus provide guidance on food selection, preparation, and supplements to help you maintain the highest possible levels of nutrition and hydration.
5. How will dysphagia affect my lifestyle?
With advances in dysphagia treatments and therapies, as well as nutritional solutions, you may find that adapting to life with dysphagia is not as challenging as it once was. Discuss your options for thickening agents with your physician, which can be mixed with your foods and beverages to effectively enhance the swallowing process. Some of these thickeners can be added to your favorite meals and drinks without affecting color, thickness or taste, and can also be added to supplements.
While a dysphagia diagnosis is not desirable, learning the facts about this manageable challenge and treatment options will help you to continue to live your life in the healthiest manner possible. Remember, help is out there – for you or your loved one – and for the millions of other Americans who are successfully living with dysphagia.