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12 Breathing and Relaxation Techniques for Dysphagia Patients

A woman closes her eyes and relaxes in a chair on an outdoor patio

While the documented ramifications of a dysphagia diagnosis are principally focused on nutritional aspects, the swallowing disorder may also lead to respiratory issues as well. In fact, most dysphagia sufferers experience breathing issues in conjunction with the eating and digestion process.1

Many dysphagic cases are related to esophageal muscular impairment, which can result in the esophagus stiffening, with the reduction or complete loss of functionality. When the esophagus becomes too weak to produce the necessary swallowing contractions, both eating and breathing can become detrimentally affected.2

While breathing challenges can coincide with eating and digestion issues, a focus on the act of breathing itself – and corresponding relaxation techniques – has proven, in many cases, to offer relief for some dysphagia patients.3 Better breathing can, among other things, make muscles more relaxed and flexible. More oxygenated muscles are also able to metabolize faster, thus becoming more powerful.4 The following are practices and techniques that may be of benefit to dysphagia patients.

8 Exercises to Strengthen the Esophagus and Minimize Dysphagic Symptoms

These special breathing exercises can be learned and practiced in order to improve the condition of the esophagus as well as to lessen or eliminate the effects of dysphagia.5 Have your dysphagia patient:

  1. Blow out as slowly as possible (five repetitions)
  2. Blow into a balloon and inflate as much as possible
  3. Blow into a pinwheel to create movement
  4. Blow into a straw to create bubbles in water
  5. Say or repeat, out loud one word at a time (automatic sequences: counting 1-10, days of the week, months of the year, etc.)
  6. Shrug shoulders with inhalation, lower shoulders with exhalation
  7. Raise chin with inhalation, lower chin toward neck with exhalation
  8. Raise arm with inhalation, lower arm with exhalation (use one or both arms)6

4 Yoga Exercises to Relax the Body and Esophageal Region

These yoga exercises are designed to have a relaxation effect on the entire body, including the esophageal region, which benefits from maintaining a relaxed state.7 Have your dysphagia patient:

  1. Sit in a comfortable upright position, which will automatically focus breathing on the diaphragm and lead to a positive state of relaxation
  2. Sit in the “Thinker’s Position” in a chair or on the edge of a bed, placing head in hands, elbows on knees, and feet on the floor
  3. Sit in a chair with both hands resting slightly above the hips with elbows slightly back
  4. Sit in a chair with arms comfortably folded and eyes closed, while consciously taking slow, relaxed breaths8

Collectively, these breathing and relaxation techniques are designed to maximize wellbeing while minimizing dysphagic effects.9 If you are not sure if any of these exercises are appropriate and/or safe for your patients, contact the patient’s physician and/or medical team for guidance.

Whether you’re a patient, caregiver, or health care provider, these simple techniques can help relieve stress, calm anxiety, and leave you better prepared for the tasks ahead. To download our free infographic with additional relaxation techniques for managing dysphagia, complete the form here.

  1. Rankin, E., Gilner, F. & Feller, J. (1993). Efficacy of progressive muscle relaxation for reducing state anxiety among elderly adults on memory tasks. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 77, 1395-1402.
  2. Yesavage, J. (1985). Nonpharmacologic treatments for memory losses with normal aging. American Journal of Psychiatry, 142, 600-605.
  3. Murray, L.L., & Kim, H. (2004). A review of select alternative treatment approaches for acquired neurogenic disorders: Relaxation therapy and acupuncture. Seminars in Speech and Language, 25, (2) 133-149.
  4. Ramig, L.O., Countryman, S., Thompson, L.L., Horii, Y. (1995). Comparison of two forms of intensive speech treatment for Parkinson Disease. Journal of speech and Hearing Research, 38, 1232-1251.
  5. Laures, J., & Shisler, R. (2004). Complementary and alternative medical approaches to treatingadultneurogeniccommunicationdisorders:Areview. DisabilityandRehabilitation, 26 (6) 315-325.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Sapir, S. & Aronson, A. (1990). The relationship between psychopathology and speech and language disorders in neurologic patients. Journal of Speech and Hearing Disorders, 55, 503-509.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Johnson, J.A., & Pring, T.R. (1990). Speech therapy and Parkinson’s disease: A review and further data. British Journal of Disorders of Communications, 25, 183-194.

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