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Recognising the Signs of Swallowing Difficulties

Swallowing difficulties can be linked to getting older or may be a symptom of another health issue. Swallowing food and drink is something most people take for granted, as it’s part of your everyday life. If you begin to recognise the signs of swallowing difficulties in your relative or loved one, it is wise to encourage them to speak with their doctor or speech and language therapist.

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Who is Affected by Swallowing Difficulties:

Swallowing difficulties can affect people at any age, but it’s more common in those who are older due to:

Weakening of muscles
Having fewer teeth
Slower reaction time to swallowing
Oesophageal dysmotility problems
Increased likelihood of disease or disorders with age

Swallowing difficulties are also common in people who have had:

Head or neck cancer
Progressive neurological diseases

Effects of Swallowing Difficulties

When you develop a swallowing difficulty, this can make someone more prone to weight loss and then a fear of eating or drinking. Swallowing is a timed action that if not done as quickly or as well as it should, it can have detrimental effects.

Identifying Swallowing Difficulties

Identifying someone having a swallowing difficulty if they do not directly tell you can be done by noticing their complaints. They may complain about things getting stuck in their throat of feeling as though the food went down the wrong way. Although this happens to people on an everyday occurrence, if not dealt with, this can turn into a very dangerous problem.

If food does go down the wrong hole, this will mean the food has entered the wind pipe as opposed to the food pipe. Our bodies are designed to notice this, which is what causes us to cough if food has gone down the wrong way. If food does go down the wrong way, this can cause the person to develop pneumonia or a chest infection. This is worth taking notice of as it can be a sign of a swallowing problem.

Other Signs of Swallowing Difficulties:

Eye watering
Throat clearing
Wet gurgly voice
Shortness of breath
Multiple swallows
Effortful swallows
Abrupt change in positioning during or after swallowing

Causes of Swallowing Difficulties

There are two types of potential swallowing difficulties: cognitive or physical.

Cognitive: This is when swallowing is involuntary and should happen automatically. However when we are chewing our food, if someone has a cognitive problem, they may not think about swallowing correctly. This can be an issue commonly seen in people with late stages of dementia, learning difficulties or a progressive neurological disorder.

Physical: This aspect of swallowing is one part of the process and there are physical aspects which can cause difficulty swallowing such as muscle or nerve damages. This is commonly seen in people who have had a stroke or head injury, head or neck cancer or have had surgery to the neck or head area.

How Speech and Language Therapists Can Help

A speech and language therapist can help to identify the possible cause of the swallowing difficulty by the way that the person swallows. They are able to test them by giving them different textures to swallow, to identify signs of which one they are able to swallow without issues.

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