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Understanding the Connection Between Dysphagia and Parkinson’s

A healthcare professional seated at a table across from a man and a woman holds Thick-It® Original Food & Beverage Thickener

Every year, 60,000 Americans are diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease (PD), a progressive disorder of the nervous system that affects movement and causes tremors and stiffness.[i] Of those patients, 80 percent will develop dysphagia, or difficulty swallowing, over the course of their illness as they lose control of their mouth and throat muscles.[ii]

Dysphagia can reduce quality of life and lead to malnutrition, dehydration, and aspiration, which occurs when a patient accidentally inhales food or fluid into their windpipe and lungs. Aspiration can lead to a dangerous condition called aspiration pneumonia, the leading cause of death in patients with PD.[iii]

It is critical to learn to recognize the symptoms of dysphagia in those who have been diagnosed with PD, especially during Parkinson’s Awareness Month this April.[iv] They include:

  • Unintentional weight loss
  • Avoiding drinking liquids
  • Feeling like there’s food stuck in the throat
  • Drooling
  • Food collecting around the gum line
  • Coughing or choking before, during, or after eating and drinking
  • Heartburn or sore throat
  • Difficulty keeping food or liquid in the mouth

Dysphagia can happen at any stage of PD, with symptoms ranging from mild to severe; therefore, intervening early is imperative to ensuring patient health and safety. If you or a loved one is experiencing any of the symptoms above, ask your physician for a referral to a speech-language pathologist (SLP), dietitian, or healthcare professional trained in treating swallowing disorders. They will perform an evaluation that typically involves an interview, examination of the head and neck, and trials with foods and liquids. If needed, the swallowing specialist may also take a video X-ray or endoscopy.

For those diagnosed with PD and dysphagia, treatment is personalized depending on the type and cause of the swallowing disorder, but can involve several of the below strategies that can make consuming foods and liquids easier and safer:

  • Learning swallowing techniques. Swallowing specialists can teach their patients ways to place food in their mouths and position their bodies and heads to optimize swallowing, such as the chin-tuck or sitting upright at a 90-degree angle and tilting the head slightly forward.[v] Exercises like the effortful or hard swallow or holding breath while swallowing can also help mitigate dysphagia caused by PD and other neurological issues.[vi]
  • Adopting a texture-modified diet. A modified diet of thickened foods and liquids can improve swallowing function and decrease the risk of aspiration. Thick-It® Purées are available in a variety of entrée, side dish, and dessert options and are precisely crafted to meet the guidelines of a texture-modified diet while also offering satisfying flavor, texture, and nutrition.

Dedicated to developing new and innovative dysphagia nutrition solutions, education is central to the Thick-It® brand’s mission. Download our free infographic for more facts and tips about PD and swallowing disorders for patients, healthcare professionals, and caregivers. You can find additional information on the Parkinson’s Foundation website.

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

 

[i] “Statistics.” Parkinson’s Foundation.
[ii] Suttrup, Inga Warnecke, Tobias, “Dysphagia in Parkinson’s Disease.” National Center for Biotechnology Information, Feb. 2016.
[iii] “Speech & Swallowing Problems.” Parkinson’s Foundation.
[iv] “Parkinson’s Awareness Month.” Parkinson’s Foundation.
[v] Paik, Nam-Jong, “What is the role of the chin-tuck position in the treatment of dysphagia?” Medscape, March 20, 2020.
[vi] Brennan, Dan, “Best Exercises for Dysphagia.” WebMD, November 17, 2020.

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