Swallowing Disorder Treatment
When a person develops a problem swallowing food and liquids, complications arise that can negatively impact their life. Swallowing disorder treatments can help when healthy swallowing is degraded through disease or injury.
The University of Kansas Health System takes a multidisciplinary approach to treating swallowing disorders. Our specialists ensure that the correct treatment is chosen for each person's diagnosis.
What are swallowing disorder treatments?
A swallowing disorder, or dysphagia, is a general term for a spectrum of conditions that all result in the impediment of a person’s ability to swallow. Swallowing disorder treatments have been designed to address the cause of a swallowing disorder in order to alleviate some or all symptoms and improve quality of life.
Swallowing disorder treatments range from surgical to medicinal depending on the cause of a person's dysphagia. Swallowing disorders can be divided into 3 categories according to the phase of swallowing in which the problem occurs:
Dysphagia can occur at any stage depending on its underlying cause. The type of treatment chosen can be narrowed down based on which phase of swallowing the disorder is occurring.
Who can have swallowing disorder treatment?
Any person who is unable to reliably swallow food and liquid may be a candidate for swallowing disorder treatment. Those with existing conditions such as severe gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) may be monitored for the development of a swallowing disorder.
Because there is a variety of swallowing problems that can occur in varying severity, the presence of this condition may not always be obvious. Some signs of a swallowing disorder can include:
- The sensation that something is caught in the throat or chest after eating or drinking
- Excessive coughing immediately after eating or drinking
- Frequent throat clearing after eating or drinking
- Difficulty breathing after meals
- A gurgling or moist voice while eating or drinking
- Excessive and frequent drooling
- Unexplained or rapid weight loss
How does swallowing disorder treatment work?
The type of treatment recommended will depend on the cause of your swallowing disorder. The goal of any treatment for a swallowing disorder is to restore your ability to swallow.
Based on the type of dysphagia a person is experiencing, their doctor may choose 1 or more types of treatment:
- BOTOX® injections
- Exercise and muscle retraining
- Enteral feeding
- Peroral endoscopic myotomy (POEM surgery)
Swallowing disorders that occur due to conditions such as GERD can often be alleviated by treating the underlying condition with medication such as proton pump inhibitors. For conditions such as achalasia, where the esophageal muscles become too stiff to swallow, BOTOX can offer temporary relief.
Swallowing therapy can be used to retrain the muscles in the mouth, throat and esophagus to improve a patient’s ability to swallow. These retraining exercises can be used in conjunction with dietary changes. Sometimes a feeding tube may also be used while a patient regains their ability to swallow.
Conditions such as achalasia can also be treated through endoscopic surgical procedures such as POEM, in which surgeons cut the muscle near the lower esophageal sphincter to allow normal swallowing.
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Benefits and risks of a swallowing disorder treatment
Getting treatment for your swallowing disorder can increase functional and safe feeding and swallowing skills. This may improve nutrition, your quality of life and your independence.
Swallowing disorder treatments are safe, but some can carry risk in rare cases. Bleeding, infection and complications arising from anesthesia or medication are risks typically associated with any surgical procedures.
Procedures such as POEM may carry some risk of perforation of the esophageal lining. Complications in the lungs, such as the development of pneumonia, may also be a concern after having surgery on the esophagus.
What happens during a swallowing disorder treatment?
For those who are treated with medicine, a course of 1 or more drugs will be prescribed along with close monitoring to ensure the swallowing disorder fades and your condition improves. For those receiving swallowing therapy, specific exercises must be learned then practiced regularly to see improvement.
Most swallowing disorders that require surgical intervention are minimally invasive and are performed using an endoscope, a thin tube with a camera and instruments that is inserted through the mouth and allows the doctor to see and treat the source of the disorder. In these cases, a short hospital stay may be required to ensure the treatment site is healing and no complications arise.