Learning About Swallowing Problems

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What are swallowing problems?

Certain health problems that affect the nervous system can cause trouble swallowing. These conditions include stroke, ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig's disease), Parkinson's disease, and multiple sclerosis. The muscles and nerves that help move food through the throat and esophagus may not work right. Growths, such as cancer, and other problems with your esophagus can also make it hard to swallow. The esophagus is the tube that leads from your throat to your stomach.

How are swallowing problems diagnosed?

A doctor or speech therapist will examine you to check for swallowing problems. You may get swallowing tests to check how well your throat muscles work. For these tests, you swallow a special liquid that helps the doctor see your throat and esophagus on an X-ray or video screen.

Other tests use a thin, flexible tube called a scope to check for problems with your esophagus. The doctor puts the scope in your mouth and down your throat to look at your esophagus.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms of swallowing problems may include:

  • Trouble getting food or liquids to go down on the first try.
  • Gagging, choking, or coughing when you swallow.
  • Having food or liquids come back up through your throat, mouth, or nose after you swallow.
  • Feeling like foods or liquids are stuck in some part of your throat or chest.
  • Pain when you swallow.

How are swallowing problems treated?

How swallowing problems are treated depends on the cause. The main goals of treatment will be to help you eat and swallow safely and get good nutrition. This is important for your health and quality of life.

You may learn exercises to train your throat muscles to work together so you're able to swallow better. Learning certain ways to put food in your mouth or to position your head while eating may also help.

Your doctor or a speech therapist may recommend changes to your diet to help make it easier to swallow. You may need to avoid certain foods or liquids. You also may need to change the thickness of foods or liquids in your diet.

To eat and swallow safely, follow any instructions you get from your doctor or therapist. These ideas may help:

  • Sit upright when eating, drinking, and taking pills.
  • Take small bites of food. Chew completely and swallow before taking another bite.
  • Take small sips of liquids.
  • If eating makes you tired, eat smaller but more frequent meals.
  • Tip your chin down when there is food in your mouth.

Where can you learn more?

Go to http://www.healthwise.net/patientEd

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The Health Encyclopedia contains general health information. Not all treatments or services described are covered benefits for Kaiser Permanente members or offered as services by Kaiser Permanente. For a list of covered benefits, please refer to your Evidence of Coverage or Summary Plan Description. For recommended treatments, please consult with your health care provider.