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Managing Dysphagia in Patients with Parkinson’s Disease

A caregiver rests her hand over her loved one’s hands as a gesture of comfort

More than 80 percent of patients with Parkinson’s disease (PD)—a progressive nervous system disorder that affects movement—experience difficulty swallowing[i] because they lose control of their mouth and throat muscles.[ii]

Difficulty swallowing, or dysphagia, can reduce quality of life. Some patients may lose interest in food and experience embarrassment and isolation, withdrawing from social activities involving eating and drinking.[iii] On a more serious note, dysphagia can also contribute to malnutrition, dehydration, and aspiration, which is when a person accidentally inhales food or fluid into their windpipe and lungs. When this happens, a patient may suffer from aspiration pneumonia, which is the leading cause of death in patients with PD, according to the Parkinson’s Foundation.[iv].

This month is Parkinson’s Awareness Month. In honor of those living with the disease, we wanted to shine light on the symptoms of dysphagia in those who have been diagnosed with PD.[v] These can include:

  • Losing weight without trying
  • Avoiding drinking liquids
  • Experiencing a sensation of food being stuck in the throat
  • Drooling
  • Noticing food collecting around the gum line
  • Coughing or choking before, during, or after eating and drinking
  • Having heartburn or a sore throat
  • Experiencing difficulty keeping food or liquid in the mouth

The first step to addressing dysphagia in patients with PD is to consult with a speech-language pathologist (SLP), dietitian, or healthcare professional trained in treating swallowing disorders. In addition to taking a medical history, the swallowing specialist will typically interview the individual and take a video X-ray or an endoscopic examination to observe the swallowing process and determine if aspiration could be a problem.

After the initial examination, the swallowing specialist might recommend the following strategies to make chewing and swallowing easier:

  • A patient’s posture can affect their ability to swallow. During mealtimes, ensure patients are sitting upright at a 90-degree angle and their heads are tilted slightly forward. Those with dysphagia should also stay seated for 15 to 20 minutes after eating.
  • While eating, patients should reduce distractions; encourage them to turn off the television, chew their food thoroughly, swallow one mouthful at a time, and avoid talking while chewing or swallowing.
  • Patients who do not make enough saliva should drink plenty of fluids. Sucking on ice pops, ice chips, or ice cubes (watch this video to learn how to make your own at home using Thick-It® Clear Advantage® Thickened Water) can also stimulate salivation and help them swallow more often.
  • Those with dysphagia often require their foods and liquids to be thickened before consuming, as thickened foods and liquids are often safer and easier for them to swallow. Thick-It® Food & Beverage Thickeners allow patients to safely enjoy their favorite dishes and drinks without altering flavor.

For many patients with PD, a dysphagia diagnosis exacerbates an already stressful and frightening situation; however, the Thick-It® brand offers a variety of resources to help people manage their swallowing disorders. Visit our resources page for information, tools, and support for patients and caregivers.

[i] Suttrup, Inga, Warnecke, Tobias, “Dysphagia in Parkinson’s Disease.” National Center for Biotechnology Information, Feb. 2016.
[ii] “Parkinson’s Disease and Swallowing Problems.” WebMD.
[iii] “Caring for Aging Adults with Dysphagia.” NYU Steinhardt, Nov. 7, 2016.
[iv] “Speech & Swallowing Problems.” Parkinson’s Foundation.
[v] “Parkinson’s Awareness Month: #Plan4PD.” Parkinson’s Foundation.

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