A number of different processes in the body that involve several organs are responsible for the proper functioning and good health. A slight disturbance to one of the procedures can result in serious health issues and major changes in the lifestyle of the affected person.
One of the complex processes in the body is swallowing. Swallowing is fundamental for effective food intake and absorption. Difficulty in swallowing or inability to swallow completely can lead to severe health risks.
Problems in swallowing or what is referred to as dysphagia in medical literature is commonly seen in the adult population. It can cause a number of issues including dehydration, malnutrition, pneumonia, and even loss of life.
The biggest reasons for difficulty in swallowing in the older age group (which is the group with the highest number of a case) are typically health conditions that develop in the process of aging as well as age-related alterations in the swallowing physiology.
The treatment and management of dysphagia include oral-motor exercises, postural adjustments, and changes in the diet along with the conventional medication. Several people also consult speech pathologists to opt for natural therapies for the health condition.
What Is Dysphagia?
Dysphagia is a health condition that affects the intricate procedure of swallowing and can either lead to difficulty in swallowing or the complete loss of ability to swallow both solid and liquid food. There can be various factors that contribute to the development of the condition.
For example, people who suffer from physiological or anatomical issues in the esophagus, larynx, pharynx, and the oral cavity can display symptoms of a problem in their swallowing process.
Difficulty in swallowing can lead to a number of health issues and decreased the quality of life. Patients with dysphagia have a higher risk of developing pneumonia as well as of malnutrition along with a weakened immune system and general deterioration of health.
When a person consumes and swallows any kind of food which is either in solid or liquid form, it travels from the mouth into the stomach via the throat and esophagus. Patients with dysphagia can have an issue with any part of the whole procedure of swallowing.
The severity of the condition can vary from person to person. Some people might only find it a bit harder than normal to swallow their food while others might cough and choke because the food they eat may start to enter the trachea or the windpipe.
Not being able to swallow does not only mean that the patient would not be able to have food. In fact, it can also be very hard to swallow the saliva produced in the mouth which is what actually causes the obstruction of food in the throat as well as choking and coughing.
What Are The Symptoms of Dysphagia?
Dysphagia is a complicated issue mainly because it is hard to figure out what part of the process of swallowing is causing the problem. In addition, the signs and symptoms in the milder cases of the health condition may also be hard to detect.
The most common signs of dysphagia include:
- Pain while swallowing (in the throat and chest area)
- Gaggling or coughing (while having food)
- Inability to swallow
- Feeling as if the food is stuck in the chest, throat or back of the chest (similar to extreme nausea)
- Having acidity or stomach acid in the throat
In addition, difficulty in swallowing is commonly seen as an effect of some other health conditions. It is also linked to the higher risk of pneumonia or nutritional deficiencies that are faced by people who have had a stroke.
Patients who have symptoms of dysphagia following a stroke can either slowly be able to swallow like before within a month or face problem in swallowing for a long period of time which can even exceed six months.
Dysphagia following a stroke typically causes issues such as malnutrition as the patients are not able to consume the required amount of food. This leads to gradual healing, nutritional deficiencies, and overall weakened body, vigilance, and immunity.
One-third of the people who face difficulty in swallowing after having a stroke also develop pneumonia. In fact, acute pneumonia as a consequence of dysphagia is reportedly the biggest reason for death following a stroke.
Another form of pneumonia which is known as aspiration pneumonia is a prevalent effect of dysphagia after a stroke. In this type, the lungs get infected after the patient inhales or aspirates food or when the vomiting travels into the lungs.
What Causes Dysphagia?
Dysphagia is commonly seen to affect the older age groups more than the others but the exact amount of the cases is not quite known. According to the older statistics, dysphagia affects around 15% of the elders in the United States.
In addition, the U.S. Census Bureau reported dysphagia affected around 40 million of the adults that have crossed the age of 65 in 2010. The health condition is seen in 68% of the elders residing in old age nursing homes.
Around 30% of those adults are admitted to the hospital. 64% of the elders have been seen to display symptoms of dysphagia after having a stroke. 13-38% of the people from older age groups who live independently suffer from difficulty in swallowing.
The causes of the health condition can also vary from one patient to another. The swallowing physiology undergoes various alterations in the process of aging such as decreased connective tissue elasticity and muscle mass.
Such changes can cause loss of a whole range of motions along with strength and hence disturb the process of the flow of digested food or liquids in the upper aerodigestive tract.
Other age-related changes include a decrease in smell and taste sharpness and lack of oral moisture. Both of these can lead to issues in swallowing in the older age groups.
In addition to the changes in the swallowing physiology that come with the process of aging, many other diseases and health conditions that have a higher risk of developing as a person ages may also contribute to signs of dysphagia.
Dementia, stroke and other neurological disorders can cause dysphagia in the elderly or add to its severity. Many other conditions that can result in dysphagia include:
- Cerebral palsy
- Parkinson’s disease
- Huntington’s disease
- Traumatic brain injury
- ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease)
- Myasthenia gravis
- Progressive supranuclear palsy
- Multiple sclerosis
Out of all of the age-related diseases that cause dysphagia, dementia is the health condition which most frequently causes problems in swallowing in the elderly population.
In accordance with the latest reports, around 45% of the institutionalized patients with dementia suffer from dysphagia.
A majority of the patients with dementia tend to lose the fast swallowing of food. Consequently, the patients make take a lot of time to finish a normal meal which results in less consumption and nutritional deficiencies.
Although dysphagia is most commonly seen in the elderly population, there are also some cases of difficulty in swallowing in the younger age groups where the causes are mostly different from those of elderly ones.
The other causes of dysphagia include a blockage in the esophagus or the throat, a narrowed esophagus, dry mouth, an esophageal tumor, and GERD.
Scar tissues, spasms in the esophagus, radiation therapy, pharyngeal diverticula, food allergies, and cancer can also lead to the development of dysphagia.