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Dysphagia: Swallowing Disorder You Probably Haven’t Heard Of

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In recent years, there has been a steady increase in patients suffering from dysphagia or difficulty swallowing. While swallowing food may seem simple, it’s a crucial activity that can become problematic due to aging or certain diseases. Let’s explore the causes of dysphagia and potential treatments.

What is Dysphagia?

Dysphagia refers to a condition that causes problems chewing and swallowing food. This includes situations where food takes a long time to reach the stomach or when food enters the upper airway or lungs. Although swallowing seems like a simple action that occurs quickly, it’s a complex function involving six cranial nerves and over fifty pairs of muscles working in a coordinated manner.

Causes of Dysphagia?

Dysphagia can be categorized into functional dysphagia and structural dysphagia. The former is caused by damage to the function of the area related to swallowing, as seen in conditions like stroke, Parkinson’s disease, and cerebral palsy. The latter refers to cases where the structure of the swallowing area changes due to surgical removal, as in laryngeal, oral, and tongue cancer. Additionally, dental problems or throat infections can also cause dysphagia.

Can Treatment be Delayed?

Severe dysphagia can lead to dehydration and malnutrition, and food entering the bronchi can lead to pneumonia. If symptoms persist, seeking medical attention for examination and testing is essential. Older people need to be carefully observed as they may overlook potential symptoms.

Signs of Dysphagia

If you find it hard to chew and swallow food, or if you’re having trouble starting to swallow, you might want to consider the possibility of dysphagia. Other symptoms to watch out for include drooling during meals, a foreign body sensation in the throat after swallowing, and changes in your voice after eating.

Common Among the Elderly

Dysphagia is more likely to occur in older people, requiring careful observation from family members. The muscles in chewing and swallowing food tend to weaken as we age. Additionally, the condition may be caused by a disease, making it essential to identify the cause through testing.

Diagnosis Through Video Fluoroscopic Swallowing Study(VFSS)

Several tests can be conducted to diagnose dysphagia. Initially, the patient’s medical history is taken, including questions about changes in voice and the sensation of a foreign body in the throat. Subsequent tests may include cranial nerve tests, respiratory function tests, and physical exams. You can also directly observe the process of food passing through via imaging. This is done using a videofluoroscopic swallowing study(VFSS), where the patient swallows food containing a contrast agent, which is then analyzed from multiple angles through fluoroscopy.

Consistent Rehabilitation is Essential

To overcome dysphagia, consistent rehabilitation therapy is crucial. This may include exercises to strengthen the lips and tongue, changing the type of food consumed, modifying the eating posture, and swallowing training. If there’s no improvement after consistent therapy, electrical stimulation therapy or medication may be used.

Eating Precautions

Along with regular rehabilitation, improving eating habits is also necessary. It’s beneficial to relax the neck through sufficient stretching before meals and maintain a straight posture during meals. Instead of eating a lot at once, it’s better to eat in small portions, and using a spoon or fork instead of chopsticks is recommended. Practicing coughing to ensure that foreign substances can be expelled from the airway is also essential.

Improving Eating Habits

Instead of eating a lot of food at once, consume it in small portions. Use a spoon or fork instead of chopsticks. Drink lukewarm or warm water instead of cold water. Maintain a sitting position for 30 minutes after eating and swallowing saliva twice or thrice. Avoid easily crumbled snacks and fruits with rough textures or seeds.

Complications Can Arise if Left Untreated

Persistent coughing or inability to swallow food can degrade the quality of life and cause social issues. Delayed treatment can lead to risks such as aspiration pneumonia, sepsis, and malnutrition. In severe cases, it can even lead to death, making early detection and treatment essential.

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