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Swallowing difficulties impact many

Swallowing disorders can hinder a person’s ability to eat, drink and take medications

By Krista Healy, Speech Pathologist

Swallowing disorders impact between 300,000 - 600,000 people across the United States each year and the effect on daily life can be severe. It is critical that individuals understand the treatment options available should they or a and loved one experience difficulty swallowing.

Swallowing disorders, also called dysphagia, can hinder a person's ability to eat, drink and take medications. These disorders are diagnosed and treated by speech-language pathologists, making June - National Dysphagia Awareness Month - an excellent opportunity to learn more about this common problem.

A person's ability to swallow seems effortless but in reality this is a very complex process with room for error. Roughly 50 pairs of muscles and nerves work to receive food into the mouth, prepare it, and move it from the mouth to the stomach. People who experience difficulty swallowing can be at risk for serious health repercussions, reduced enjoyment of eating, and even social isolation—given that so many social interactions, celebrations, and holidays largely revolve around food. It's important for people to know that treatment for these disorders is available and can greatly improve quality of life.

Swallowing disorders are often caused by stroke or brain injury, Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer's disease and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. They can also result from problems that affect a person's head or neck, such as cancer, injuries, or surgery. Some of the signs of a swallowing disorder include coughing during or right after eating, wet or gurgly sounding voice, feeling like food is stuck in one's throat and pain or discomfort during eating or drinking.

In evaluating a patient for a potential disorder, a speech-language pathologist will observe how a person's muscles work when they swallow. They may perform special tests to see inside a patient's throat. Treatment may include specialized exercises to improve muscle movement, positions or strategies to help the person swallow more effectively, and specific food and liquid textures that are easier and safer to swallow.

In many cases, treatment can help fully restore a person's ability to eat and drink—allowing them to enjoy food to the degree they did prior to injury or disease. This may be the case even if they begin on a modified diet of special food. The goal is for this to be a temporary situation. People who experience stroke and other conditions can go on to live many decades, making effective treatment for swallowing so important.

If you have concern for yourself or a family member, contact the CHA Rehabilitation Department at 617-591-4600. You can also find a list of certified speech-language pathologists at


Cambridge Health Alliance

Contributed By: Cambridge Health Alliance

Cambridge Health Alliance is an academic community health care system committed to serving all members of our communities. We have expertise in primary care, mental health and substance abuse, and caring for diverse and complex populations. CHA patients receive high quality care in convenient neighborhood locations, and have seamless access to advanced care through CHA’s affiliation with Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. With over 140,000 patients in Cambridge, Somerville Everett and Boston’s Metro North, CHA is working hard to offer the integrated services its communities need now, and in the future.