5 Conditions That Cause Dysphagia and Strategies for Surviving Mealtimes

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Dysphagia is a medical condition affecting the muscles around the jaw, which makes it difficult to swallow food and liquid. With difficulties swallowing, mealtimes become a choking hazard, displaced food can cause pneumonia, and asphyxiation can creep up in the worse cases. According to the Swallowing Disorder Foundation, there is an estimated 15 million American adults that suffer from dysphagia. The tricky part about this condition is that it's typically a product of an underlying health condition, which means treatment often involves managing symptoms. Throughout this article, we will tell you about five conditions that cause dysphagia and how to make mealtimes more manageable.


Who Can Suffer Dysphagia?

The truth is that dysphagia can strike at any age. However, its likelihood increases with age because older people are more susceptible to underlying medical conditions. According to this publication from the National Library of Medicine, dysphagia is more common in people over 65 years old. However, both short-term and long-term swallowing issues can strike anyone. For example, common sore throats from the likes of tonsillitis can cause swallowing issues - Baylor College of Medicine says this is the most common complaint in dysphagia sufferers.


Parkinson's Disease

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), Parkinson's disease (PD) actively affects more than 8.5 million people worldwide - a figure that's only set to rise. Shutting down motor functionality by attacking the central nervous system, PD typically starts showing with trembling hands. Because PD impacts the muscles, including around the jaw, severe dysphagia can develop. 


Multiple Sclerosis (MS)

There are around one million cases of MS in the US alone, according to the National MS Society. Unfortunately, the root cause of MS is still a mystery, which renders it incurable. However, we understand that it's an autoimmune disease that targets fatty cells surrounding the brain and spinal cord. The nature of MS means that it can attack nerves responsible for chewing and swallowing, leading to dysphagia in some cases. The symptoms of MS are managed rather than cured, which means close monitoring by healthcare professionals.



Our brains and body need oxygen to function, but there are many ways for the brain to be deprived. When this happens, we suffer what is known as a stroke, which can leave us with few motor functions and speech issues. Fortunately, despite the length of time ranging from weeks to years, stroke sufferers can make a full recovery. However, during this time, our bodies can develop dysphagia, which needs managing to avoid falling into other illnesses.


Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)

We've all been victim to a little acid reflux, which isn't pleasant; now imagine having chronic acid reflux - GERD if you're being medically correct. If left to its own devices, the repeated stomach acids burning the oesophagus can lead to swelling or constricting. Unfortunately, alongside chest pains, regurgitation, and heartburn, this disease can leave you with swallowing issues. Luckily, with proper treatment, these issues will relax over time.


Post-Polio Syndrome

Despite a successful vaccine in 1979 practically eliminating the disease, polio still poses a threat in America today. As the name suggests, post-polio can rear its head any time after a successful recovery from polio. Rather than being a condition, post-polio syndrome is an umbrella term to describe countless disabling conditions, one of which is dysphagia. As with many conditions of this nature, the cure is unknown, meaning more healthcare monitoring and symptom management. Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to manage dysphagia, which we discuss throughout the next section of the article.


Strategies for Surviving Mealtimes

Swallowing issues can turn mealtimes into a disaster, which makes getting your essential nutrients difficult. Fortunately, if you approach mealtimes strategically, you can mitigate these problems and have a more successful experience.


Thickening Agents

Swallowing liquids can become problematic if you've got dysphagia, to the extent that you can choke and spill liquid all over yourself. Luckily, you can get your hands on thickening agents, making liquids more solid and easier to swallow. However, you need to use a brand with plenty of positive customer For a good example, check out the Simply Thick LinkedIn page.


Proper Positioning

Dysphagia usually comes with a side of acid reflux, which leaves a burning sensation in your throat. To reduce the instances of acid reflux, you need to give some thought to how you sit during meals. For example, you should avoid slouching or laying on the couch during mealtimes - only through sitting upright will you reduce acid reflux. When it comes to head positioning, we suggest tilting your head and pushing your chin forward - check out this article if you want to learn more about mealtime positioning.


Jaw Muscle Exercise

Exercising is essential for keeping our bodies fit and healthy, but you need to add a jaw workout in if you're suffering from dysphagia. You should plan the exercises just before you eat but doing them whenever you get a chance will still have a benefit. Don't worry, these aren't strenuous workouts; you'll simply be tensing your jaw muscles in a particular way - click here for more information.


Choose Food Wisely

If you're a food lover, you'll be sad to hear that dysphagia takes much of your choice away. However, sufferers need not despair because you can still enjoy mealtimes - you just need to give careful consideration to your diet. The list of suitable foods includes smooth puddings, souffle, and pureed vegetables - check out Saint Luke's to find out more.


Take It Easy

Some people just need to look at a plate and it's gone, but even they will need to slow things down if they develop swallowing issues - rushing will only increase the likelihood of choking. When you go out for meals with loved ones, you will need to plan your time to account for additional times, which may mean arriving early to have your meal ready before everyone else's. Every mouthful needs to be chewed properly at a slow pace, which will make it easier to swallow.


Calming Atmosphere

When you're eating food and it gets stuck in your throat, the aftermath can be scary. Therefore, to maintain focus, you need to find a calming environment to have your meals. This space needs to be free of all distractions because too many will see you choking in minutes. Creating the perfect environment might mean planning your food around family members or daily routines - you won't be able to just œpop in to your local coffee shop for a quick bite. We suggest creating a weekly schedule and writing your mealtimes in. That way, if you need any support, you can let people know ahead of time.


When to See a Doctor

Now you know how to manage dysphagia symptoms at home, you need to understand when it's time to see a doctor. Aside from the obvious swallowing issues, dysphagia can hit you with the following:

1. Constant feeling of food stuck in your throat.

2. Persistent drooling.

3. Severe weight loss caused by swallowing difficulties.

4. Actual vomiting alongside regurgitation.

You may already have medications to manage these dysphagia symptoms, but if you aren't able to swallow them, it's clearly time to contact your doctor. According to The New York Times, around 40% of Americans are unable to swallow pills or prefer alternatives; speak to your healthcare provider because there's usually a different method.

Pneumonia and Dysphagia

If you have severe dysphagia symptoms, it can cause pneumonia, which is a serious aspiration condition. You've all heard the expression œIt went down the wrong hole, which usually follows choking. If you've got swallowing issues, food is much more likely to enter the windpipe, which means it can easily enter the lungs. Because food doesn't belong in the lungs, it breaks down and causes an infection - pneumonia. Visit your doctor if you feel any of the following:

- Chills.

- Breathing difficulties: short breathiness and wheezing.

- Chest pains.

- Coughing whenever you eat or drink.

- The voice becomes gurgled during mealtimes.

- Fevers without obvious cause.


What Can Happen If You Don't Seek Help

Despite the information outlined above, you may still brush off swallowing issues and try to manage them at home. However, if you ignore severe dysphagia, you may need to have emergency surgery - likely to be one of the following:

- Stents. Stents are plastic or metal tubes used to keep arteries open to prevent heart attacks. However, they can be used to support the windpipe of dysphagia sufferers.

- Laparoscopic Heller Myotomy. Of the potential surgeries, this is the most invasive. You will have your sphincter taken out in the hope that you'll swallow food easily.

- Esophageal dilation. Your esophagus is the tube used when swallowing, and your doctors may attempt to stretch it out. During this procedure, you will have a balloon inserted and inflated, which should stretch out the muscles.

Despite there being plenty of at-home treatments for dysphagia, we suggest seeking medical attention just to be on the safe side; you may discover an underlying condition that you can start treating.



Dysphagia can be caused by many conditions including GERD, MS, Parkinson's disease, strokes, post-polio syndrome, and many other neurological disorders. There are no œquick fixes for dysphagia, so you will need to manage the symptoms at home. To do this, you need to choose your foods carefully, take it easy during mealtimes, strengthen your jaw muscles through exercise, and use thickening agents. Severe dysphagia, if left untreated, can cause pneumonia and see you undergo invasive surgeries. Therefore, you should get checked out by a medical professional to be on the safe side.

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