A swallowing disorder called dysphagia often occurs as a result of stroke. Dysphagia may occur in up to 65 percent of stroke patients. If not identified and managed, it can lead to poor nutrition, pneumonia and increased disability.
Aspiration (inhaling food or drink) is a common problem for people with dysphagia. It occurs when material a person is swallowing enters their airway and lungs; pneumonia may develop. Normally, aspiration would cause a violent cough, but a stroke can reduce sensation. After a stroke, food or liquid could enter the airway/lungs without the survivor being aware of it. This is called silent aspiration.
Speech-language pathologists are trained to test swallowing. The first step is a bedside assessment.
Efforts to make sure survivors with swallowing problems receive adequate nutrition are taken by the patient's medical team. If it doesn't appear safe for them to swallow anything by mouth, they may require tube feeding. The swallowing tests give the speech-language pathologist information to help create an individualized treatment plan to help patients regain their swallowing skills.
Treatment plans generally include exercises to improve coordination of muscle movements in the mouth and throat. A plan may also include techniques to help compensate for lost function.
As some foods may be too difficult to chew or swallow, the speech-language pathologist may recommend that survivors change the food and liquids they eat and drink. For example, thin liquids are often hard to swallow safely after a stroke because they move quickly through the mouth and throat. To avoid aspiration, survivors are sometimes given liquids that have been thickened so they move more slowly and stay together.
Although each treatment plan is unique and designed to meet specific needs, some common precautions may help you swallow more safely.
During a survivor's recovery, the speech-language pathologist continually assesses their progress and determines when it's safe for them to eat more normal foods.