What is Dysphagia and why you need a nutritionist. Picture of dietitian and speech therapist and an internal model of the head and neck anatomy.

What is Dysphagia and Why You Need a Nutritionist

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Do you struggle to swallow your food, feel it get stuck in your throat, or cough after taking a bite or drink? If this is a regular occurrence, you are likely struggling from a condition called Dysphagia. But what is Dysphagia? It is a condition better known as difficulty swallowing.

Dysphagia can affect people of all ages, races, genders, and ethnicities. Join us as we explore everything you need to know about what Dysphagia is and steps toward managing it.

Causes and Symptoms of Dysphagia

The cause of a swallowing problem is different for each person. Traditional causes include:

  • Stroke
  • Muscular Dystrophy
  • ALS
  • MS
  • Parkinson’s Disease
  • Cancer
  • Other neurological or musculoskeletal disorders

Non-traditional swallowing disorders happen as well and often occur in younger people. Some of the causes include:

  • GERD (acid reflux)
  • Functional dysphagia (no identifiable cause)
  • Choking incident, whether personal or witnessed
  • After bariatric surgery
  • Inflammation related
  • Bacterial, viral, or fungal infection
  • Head injury or other trauma
  • Fear

Symptoms of Dysphagia also vary from person to person. They are wide ranging and you may experience many or few of them. Here is a list of Dysphagia symptoms:

  • Losing food or liquid out of your lips, not able to keep lips closed while eating/drinking
  • Pocketing (food collecting in the cheeks or under the tongue)
  • Drooling
  • Runny nose
  • Watery eyes
  • Gagging
  • Coughing while eating or drinking
  • Excessive chewing
  • Difficulty starting a swallow
  • Feeling of food getting stuck in the throat or chest
  • Constant throat clearing
  • Voice changes after eating
  • Weight loss (not intended)
  • Dehydration
  • More…

Diagnosis and Treatment Options

In order to get a diagnosis, first talk to your regular doctor. Let them know about the trouble you are having. Be very specific about your symptoms.

You will likely need a referral to other specialists. These include but are not limited to a GI doctor, an ENT, a Speech Therapist, and a Dietitian.

There are many different tests that can be done to diagnose or rule out problems that may be causing your swallowing difficulty.

Potential Complications of Untreated Dysphagia

Many things can go wrong if a swallowing issue is not addressed. Some of the complications include dehydration, weight loss, malnutrition, and pneumonia.

Not being able to get food and liquids into your body can make the swallowing disorder worse, which makes the nutrition worse and ends up in what Dysphagia Duo calls the “malnutrition cycle of Dysphagia”.

Left untreated, this disorder can result in hospital visits, the need for a feeding tube or nutrition through an IV, or worse. On another note, a feeding tube may be helpful temporarily to get you back on track.

Nutrition Strategies for Managing Dysphagia (and why you need a Nutritionist!)

A dietitian nutritionist should be an integral part of your team when you are dealing with a swallowing disorder. Food and drink are the most important piece of managing health, especially a swallowing disorder.

Hydration can be extremely tricky when struggling to drink liquids. Being dehydrated can lead to fatigue, weakness, muscle cramps, brain fog, and more complications.

Poor nutrition can happen for many reasons. Sometimes the easiest foods to eat are not the best for your body, muscles, and brain. Foods that are highly processed, have ingredients that you can’t pronounce or maybe you just don’t know what they are should be avoided.

Poor intake can lead to malnutrition. Some symptoms of malnutrition include:

  • weakness
  • fatigue
  • hair loss and skin issues
  • feeling cold often
  • getting sick more often
  • anxiety
  • weight loss

Working with a dietitian can give you the tools and knowledge to safely get food in, learn what to eat, how to prepare and alter food texture, as well as what foods have which nutrients and why they are important.

Some of the tools you will gain when working with a dietitian include:

  • knowledge about what to eat: protein, carbs & fiber, healthy fats, vitamins, and minerals
  • how to change food texture to make it safer
  • increasing nutrients while decreasing volume/amount of food
  • mindset change for long term health improvement
  • why hydration is important and strategy for getting fluids in
  • and much more

Support and Resources for Individuals with Dysphagia

Groups to Support You

There are a number of groups and organizations to support you with managing your swallowing disorder. Here are a few for you to look into:

Dysphagia Outreach Project: This group provides support for anyone of any age with a swallowing disorder. They provide financial assistance, supplies, and volunteer opportunities for anyone wanting to give back.

Dysphagia Duo: This team consists of myself and a speech therapist. We provide support, education, encouragement, and more for people with swallowing disorders and their loved ones.

National Foundation of Swallowing Disorders: This wonderful foundation works to increase awareness, provide support, and connect patients with SLP’s. They also have connections around the world to support people with Dysphagia who are outside the US.

Products To Support You

Amazon.com has a number of Dysphagia cookbooks, books, tools, and products available to make finding the right options for you easy. A few of our favorites include:

Dysphagia Naturally by Julia Tuchman. Julia is a dysphagia warrior who had to learn about swallowing disorders on her own, there was very little information and most doctors did not understand it well when she was originally diagnosed.

Thickeners can be expensive. Our favorite options are DysphagiaAide and Simply Thick. DysphagiaAide is about the cost of Simply Thick for more than 4 times the number of servings. Simply Thick does mix in more smoothly, more quickly but with a handy frother both work very well.

There are also cups and straws designed specifically to support swallowing difficulties. These should be used at the recommendation of a Speech Therapist for best results.

Food Resources

Getting foods to the correct texture and still looking beautiful can be a challenge. Pureeing foods separately and then layering them is a lot of work but increases the visual appeal and gives you control over portion sizes of certain foods.

Our favorite tools for blending a pureeing foods are a good blender (like a Vitamix or Ninja), a good portable blender (like the Ninja Blast), and a good food processor (Ninja or Cuisinart). A stick blender, also known as an immersion blender, is a great tool to invest in as well.

Modifying your diet is a must for most people with swallowing issues. Knowing what consistency you need your food adjusted to can be overwhelming at first, but learning about the benefits can help you get more food into your body safely and consistently. Learn more about the IDDSI levels HERE.

What is Dysphagia Conclusion

Ultimately, Dysphagia is a common and serious condition that affects many people. It can be caused by a number of factors, including neurological conditions, structural abnormalities, and muscle weakness. The symptoms of dysphagia range from mild discomfort to severe difficulty swallowing, and can greatly impact quality of life.

Fortunately, there are various diagnostic tests, treatment options, and resources available to help manage dysphagia. These can include medications, diet modifications, and swallowing exercises. It is important for individuals with dysphagia to work closely with a healthcare team to determine the cause and develop an appropriate treatment plan.

If left untreated, dysphagia can lead to potential complications such as malnutrition, dehydration, and aspiration pneumonia. Therefore, it is crucial for individuals with swallowing disorders to seek medical attention and follow their prescribed treatment plan in order to prevent these complications.

Managing dysphagia can be challenging, but there are strategies and techniques that can help individuals cope with the condition. These can include eating slowly, taking smaller bites, and avoiding certain foods that may trigger symptoms. It is also important for individuals with dysphagia to have a strong support system, whether it be from family, friends, therapy, or support groups, as they navigate the challenges of living with this condition.

Overall, dysphagia is a condition that should not be taken lightly. It is important to recognize the causes and symptoms, seek appropriate diagnosis and treatment, and implement strategies to manage the condition effectively. With the right support and resources, individuals with dysphagia can lead fulfilling lives and minimize the impact of this condition on their daily activities and overall well-being.

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