Articles & News

4 Common Psychological Challenges (& Solutions) Facing Dysphagia Patients

A woman with dysphagia rests her hands in her lap as she holds her wooden cane

One in 17 people will develop some form of dysphagia in their lifetime, including 50 to 75 percent of stroke patients and 60 to 70 percent of patients who undergo radiation therapy for head and neck cancer. Estimates of dysphagia’s prevalence in such neurological diseases as Parkinson’s disease and ALS run as high as 90 percent.1

If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with dysphagia, you are probably familiar with the physical challenges of the condition, including the dangers of aspiration and choking, while also increasing the likelihood of dehydration and malnutrition. Equally challenging, however, are the emotional aspects that accompany this swallowing disorder.2

Here are common emotional challenges that many dysphagia patients experience, along with research-based solutions for these psychological obstacles.

1. Fear
Challenge: Unless you or your loved one has known someone else with dysphagia, you probably know little or nothing about this swallowing disorder. Fear of the unknown is a very common reaction to a dysphagia diagnosis.
Suggested Solutions: Research indicates that finding healthcare professionals and specialists you trust can greatly reduce anxiety. A recent study indicated that fear significantly dissipates when patients learn that dysphagia can be a highly treatable condition and that, in many cases, easily attainable solutions exist for the swallowing disorder.3

2. Embarrassment
Challenge: A recent study found that self-consciousness and embarrassment were common reactions among dysphagia patients. The findings indicated that those dealing with swallowing challenges felt that others were noticing the effects of their disorder, especially in public dining situations.4
Suggested Solutions: Modifying food consistencies with thickeners and other products can help to make mealtime less intimidating and make the dining process easier. Once dysphagia patients understand that there are solutions, they become less self-conscious and feelings of embarrassment are greatly lessened.5

3. Isolation
Challenge: When dysphagia patients feel embarrassed, they often avoid public dining situations altogether. This often leads to ongoing negative social and psychological effects.6
Suggested Solutions: Research shows that when patients receive education from doctors and healthcare professionals concerning problems related to dysphagia, they feel much more comfortable dining in public settings. Patients feel more safeguarded and there is an overall improvement in their quality of life.7

4. Helplessness
Challenge: Even when patients understand that there are viable solutions to their swallowing challenges, feelings of depression and despondency have often been recorded. Typically, a dysphagia diagnosis requires ongoing treatment for life, leaving many patients to feel helpless.8
Suggested Solutions: Research indicates that getting into an ongoing dietary routine helps to lessen feelings of helplessness. One study found that once dysphagia patients became accustomed to having thickeners and other modifications added to their diets, it became a regular part of their dining experience – and patients thought about it less.9

With sound advice and direction from healthcare specialists, such as Speech Language Pathologists (SLPs), Ear, Nose and Throat specialists (ENTs), and other medical experts focused on dysphagia, you and/or your loved one can face your swallowing challenges with confidence. As always, knowledge is power and being as well informed as possible regarding dysphagia issues will help you to enjoy the highest possible quality of life, both physically and psychologically.

1. Carlene Russell, MS, RD, LD, FADA, “Dining With Dysphagia,” The Master Track Series, Dietary Managers Association, 2003.
2. Ekberg O, Hamdy S, Woisard V, Wuttge-Hanning A, Ortega P. Social and psychological burden of dysphagia: its impact on diagnosis and treatment. Dysphagia 2002;17:139-46.Frank W. Jackson, M.D., “5 Levels for Difficulty In Swallowing Diet”, Dysphagia Diet, 2010.
3. Gustafsson B, Tibblin L. Dysphagia, an unrecognized handicap. Dysphagia 1991;6:193-9.
4. McOrnej CA, Bricker DE, Kramer AE. The SWAL-QOL outcomes tool for oropharyngeal dysphagia in adults: Conceptual foundation and item development. Dysphagia 2000;15:115-21.
5. Ibid.
6. Aguilar NV, Olson ML, Shedd D. Rehabilitation of deglutition problems in patients with head and neck cancer. Am J Surg 1979;138:501-7.
7. Ibid.
8. Steele, C. M., Van Lieshout, P. H. H. M., & Goff, H. D. (2003). The flow properties of liquids: How do clinicians’ interpretations of labeled consistency compare with objective rheological measurement? Dysphagia, 18(2), 1-14.
9. Ibid.

Shop online or find a retailer near you.