How to spot swallowing problems that put seniors’ lives at risk

Posted March 26, 2012, at 4:11 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — Many of us take the simple act of swallowing for granted. Yet every year, approximately 10 million Americans are diagnosed with swallowing disorders, also known as dysphagia. Nearly all dementia patients develop dysphagia, and swallowing disorders are associated with stroke, progressive neurological disorders including multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s, as well as respiratory and other medical conditions.

The speech-language pathology program at Amedisys Home Health in Bangor works with patients to recover their swallowing and communication skills.

“People who have difficulty swallowing food and liquids open themselves up to a range of health problems, such as weight loss, poor nutrition, dehydration, choking and aspiration pneumonia, which happens when food or drink gets into the lungs,” said David Hutchings, managing director of rehab services for Amedisys. “These conditions can erode a person’s quality of life and in some cases even threaten their life. It’s crucial to help patients recover the ability to swallow.”

Last year, Amedisys’ speech-language pathology team helped patients meet nearly 71 percent of their treatment goals, compared with the national average of nearly 52 percent, according to the American Speech-Language and Hearing Association National Outcomes Measurement System report.

Amedisys Home Health urges seniors and their loved ones to talk to a health care professional about the following symptoms of swallowing disorders:

• Reports of feeling that food is “sticking in the throat or chest.” The sensation that food is stuck in the esophagus is the most common symptom of dysphagia.

• Coughing during or after eating and drinking. If food sticks in the throat or larynx, the body tries to dislodge it through coughing. In some severe cases, food may come back up in the mouth after being swallowed.

• Gurgled speech. Swallowing disorders may cause adults to develop a “wet” vocal quality after eating or drinking.

• Weight loss. Difficulty in swallowing food can lead to nutrition problems, because sufferers can’t eat enough to meet their dietary needs.

• Pain in the chest or back. Retaining food in the esophagus can lead to heartburnlike symptoms. In some cases, the pain can be so severe that patients may think they are having a heart attack.

“By proactively treating swallowing disorders and using specialized feeding techniques, we can help to reduce unnecessary hospitalizations and improve the overall quality of life for our home health and hospice patients,” Hutchings said.

Contributed by Amedisys Home Health of Bangor.

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