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Recognizing Dysphagia within a Traumatic Brain Injury

A man sitting on a couch rubs his head in pain and agony

Ninety-three. That’s the percentage of patients in one study who experienced dysphagia following a severe traumatic brain injury (TBI).[i]  As one of the most common complications found in TBI, dysphagia can threaten an individual’s nutrition, weight, and, in some severe cases, life.

Dysphagia is a swallowing disorder that can be caused by a multitude of other health conditions, including stroke, neurological disease, dementia, and post-TBI.

When an injury to the head occurs, parts of the brain that control speech, the mouth, and throat muscles can be damaged, resulting in dysphagia.[ii] Additionally, according to the Brain Injury Association, the effects of a brain injury can prevent people from being aware of problems, such as food going down the wrong way, because their choking reflex does not work. This is known as silent aspiration and is one of the reasons aspiration pneumonia can occur.

Because March is Brain Injury Awareness Month, it’s important to recognize the early warning signs of dysphagia in those who have suffered head trauma. These can include[iii]:

  • Immediate coughing after eating and swallowing
  • Choking when trying to swallow
  • Uncoordinated chewing or swallowing
  • Pocketing of food between the cheek or gum
  • Leakage of food or liquid through the nose
  • Drooling or leakage of liquid or food from the mouth while eating or drinking
  • Slow eating
  • Visible grimacing or difficulty swallowing
  • Avoidance of eating and drinking
  • A wet gurgling cough
  • Complaints that it feels like food is getting stuck in the throat
  • Pain behind the sternum after eating

In severe cases of TBI, dysphagia can be permanent; however, in one study, following 126 days of rehabilitation, 64 percent of patients with a severe TBI were able to return to an unrestricted diet before discharge.i Understanding what resources and strategies are available for those experiencing dysphagia, as well as their caregivers, is key to managing the challenging aspects of this swallowing condition.

For example, meeting with a speech language pathologist can help dysphagia patients determine a safe and effective treatment plan as well as find education and counseling.[iiv]

Additionally, the Thick-It® brand, which provides reliable dysphagia nutrition solutions, is dedicated to being a valuable resource for people with swallowing difficulties. Find more information on where to purchase dysphagia-friendly products, how to create a safe and enjoyable mealtime, and strategies for maintaining proper nutrition and hydration on a dysphagia diet on our website at Thick-It®.com/education.



[i] Hansen TS, Engberg AW, Larsen K. Functional oral intake and time to reach unrestricted dieting for patients with traumatic brain injury. Arch Phys Med Rehabil. 2008; 89:1556–62.
[ii] Hvingelby, NP, PhD, Eva. “Swallowing Difficulty after Head Trauma” Nov. 25, 2019
[iii] Ibid.
[iiv] American Speech-Language Hearing Association. “Adult Dysphagia”

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