What Is Dysphagia? (Taken from the Dysphagia Research Society)

By Elyse Matson, MA CCC-SLP, SLP Resource/Ensign Services
Swallowing is one of the most complex actions we perform, involving more than 30 muscles and nerves. The average person swallows approximately 600 times per day — about 350 times while awake, 200 times while eating, and around 50 times while asleep.

Dysphagia indicates any difficulty or problem with swallowing normally. A swallowing disorder not only affects safety but also quality of life. Dysphagia is a serious medical condition that affects between 300,000 and 600,000 individuals in the United States each year.

Common signs and symptoms of dysphagia include: difficulty with weight gain (in children), unintentional weight loss (in adults), coughing during eating/drinking, recurrent aspiration pneumonia, food/liquid coming out of the nose/mouth, and a feeling of food remaining “stuck” in the throat/upper chest, to name a few.

Dysphagia is associated with a wide variety of conditions, including congenital and developmental disorders (e.g., cleft lip/palate, Down’s syndrome), head and neck cancers, pulmonary conditions (e.g., chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), and a variety of neurologic conditions such as stroke, dementia, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease), Parkinson’s disease, muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, and many more. Since it is a common symptom in many of these diseases, it often goes unnoticed and is often under-reported, despite having significant consequences.

Complications and consequences of dysphagia include pulmonary aspiration, malnutrition, dehydration, pneumonia and even death. In hospitalized patients, dysphagia has been shown to significantly lengthen the hospital length of stay and is a negative prognostic indicator. In addition, those with dysphagia often report a feeling of isolation and depression, as many are no longer able to take part in social gatherings that so often revolve around eating and drinking. It is estimated that dysphagia is responsible for between $4.3 to $7.1 billion in additional hospital costs per year. Despite the significant detrimental impact dysphagia has on health and quality of life, only a third of those afflicted seek medical treatment.

Assessment of dysphagia frequently includes a clinical assessment and instrumental assessment. A clinical bedside swallow assessment is typically completed by a speech-language pathologist (SLP) and is used to describe the characteristics of the individual’s swallow function, determine the presence/absence and characteristics of a swallowing disorder, determine the safest route of nutrition/hydration, and help provide additional recommendations for an instrumental assessment and appropriate treatment. The two most common instrumental assessments are fiberoptic endoscopic evaluation of swallowing (FEES) and modified barium swallow study (MBSS).

Once a diagnosis of dysphagia has been made, the healthcare team determines the most appropriate plan for treatment. Management of dysphagia may involve medical/surgical intervention by a physician and/or behavioral intervention by an SLP. The focus of any dysphagia intervention is to optimize the swallow to be as safe and efficient as possible, as well as to maximize the patient’s quality of life.