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Identifying and Managing Dysphagia After a Stroke

An elderly man with grey hair and glasses looks up at a caregiver while holding her hand.

Swallowing is a complex task that requires the brain to coordinate more than 50 pairs of muscles to prepare the food in the mouth and propel it through the throat and into the stomach.[i] When a stroke occurs and blood flow to the brain is interrupted, a person can develop subsequent difficulty swallowing, or dysphagia.

More than half of the 7.8 million Americans who suffer from a stroke experience dysphagia.[ii] Not only can dysphagia hinder quality of life, but it can also increase the risk of malnutrition, dehydration, choking, and respiratory complications like aspiration pneumonia, an opportunistic infection with a high risk of mortality. In recognition of National Stroke Awareness Month this May, the Thick-It® brand outlines how to identify and manage dysphagia after a stroke.[iii]

Because swallowing problems are not always obvious, it is important to be aware of symptoms that can include[iv]:

  • Coughing or choking when eating or drinking.
  • Food or drink going down the wrong way.
  • Feeling that food is stuck in your throat.
  • Not being able to keep food or drink in your mouth.
  • Not being able to chew food properly.
  • Still having food or drink left in your mouth after you’ve swallowed.
  • Being short of breath when you’re swallowing.
  • Experiencing changes in voice during or after eating.

Following a stroke, a speech-language pathologist (SLP) or swallowing specialist will evaluate how well a patient can move the muscles in their mouth, swallow, and speak.[v] After a clinical swallow evaluation, a comprehensive assessment may also include an instrumental test that can view a patient eating and drinking via endoscopy or X-ray. This test can further assess the utility of swallowing strategies and the need for diet modifications as well as determine appropriate dysphagia exercises for rehabilitation.[vi] If diagnosed with dysphagia, the swallowing specialist, along with a dietitian and other healthcare professionals trained in treating swallowing disorders, will develop a customized treatment plan that incorporates strategies that can help make consuming foods and liquids easier and safer, such as:

  • Adopt a texture-modified diet. A modified diet with textures such as Puréed, Minced & Moist, Soft & Bite-Sized, or Easy to Chew foods along with thickened drinks when needed, can improve swallowing function and decrease the risk of choking and respiratory complications. Thick-It® Purées are available in a variety of entrée, side dishes, and dessert options and are precisely crafted to meet the guidelines of a puréed diet while also offering satisfying flavor, texture, and nutrition.
  • Drink enough fluids. It’s important to consume plenty of safe, reliable liquids thickened to the level that is suited to your prescribed needs. Thickened liquid levels include Slightly Thick, Mildly Thick, and Moderately Thick. Thick-It® Clear Advantage® Ready-to-Drink Beverages provide an array of convenient, flavorful options while Thick-It® Clear Advantage® Plus Electrolytes Thickened Beverages are pre-mixed with essential electrolytes the body needs to feel and function at its best. Thick-It® Original Concentrated Food & Beverage Thickener is an easy-to-use powder for thickening beverages on your own.
  • Learn to swallow safely. During mealtime, avoid distractions like the television or looking at your phone so you can concentrate on eating and drinking. Sit up straight with your feet flat on the floor. Take small bites and sips. Give yourself plenty of time to clear all foods and liquids from your mouth. Download the Thick-It® brand’s free Guide to Safer Swallowing for more tips.
  • Practice good oral hygiene. Brushing your teeth and tongue thoroughly at least twice a day can decrease the risk of aspiration pneumonia because it reduces bacteria in the mouth that can be breathed into the lungs.[vii]

A dysphagia diagnosis after a stroke can be frightening, but with the appropriate resources and support, it can be managed and even improved. Find more information about stroke, life after stroke, and articles about stroke survivors and their family caregivers on the American Stroke Association website.

Always seek the advice of a physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have about a medical condition, treatment, or the use of Thick-It® products. The information contained herein is for informational purposes and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment in any manner.

[i] “Dysphagia.” National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, March 6, 2017.
[ii] “Cerebrovascular Disease or Stroke.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, January 5, 2022.
[iii] “May is National Stroke Awareness Month.” Society for Public Health Education.
[iv] “Swallowing Problems.” Stroke Association.
[v] “Trouble Swallowing After Stroke (Dysphagia).” American Stroke Association, June 17, 2021.
[vi] “Adult Dysphagia.” American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.
[vii] “Looking after your mouth and teeth (oral hygiene).” Stroke Association.

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