What is Dysphagia?

Dysphagia is a condition defined by difficulty swallowing. Cases range from mild difficulty swallowing to the complete inability to swallow any foods or liquids.

Dysphagia occurs when there is a problem with any part of the swallowing process. Some problems include the inability to start the swallowing reflex because of a stroke or other nervous system disorder. Typically people with this type of condition are unable to begin the muscle movements that allow food to move from the mouth to the stomach.

In certain cases of dysphagia, coughing or throat clearing cannot remove foods or liquids that enter the windpipe. Food or liquid that stays in the windpipe may enter the lungs and create a chance for harmful bacteria to grow. A serious infection known as aspiration pneumonia can result.

What Causes Dysphagia?

Dysphagia has many causes. Any condition that weakens or damages the muscles or nerves used for swallowing may cause dysphagia. Neuromuscular diseases such as Cerebral Palsy, ALS or Parkinson's disease can cause dysphagia. Stroke or head injury can also cause dysphagia because it affects the coordination of the swallowing muscles.

Additionally, cancer of the head, neck, or esophagus may lead to difficulty swallowing. Sometimes the treatment for these types of cancers, such as radiation therapy, can cause dysphagia.

With such a wide range of causes it is estimated that over 15 million people suffer from dysphagia with another million being added every year.

Treatment Options

In addition to physical therapy and other treatment modalities, Neuromuscular Electrical Stimulation (NMES) is an FDA cleared therapy used as an adjunct treatment to re-educate and strengthen the swallowing muscles of the throat to improve swallowing function.