Understanding Swallowing Disorders in Adults

What Happens When We Eat and Drink?

Eating and drinking seem simple, but they involve a series of steps. We use our mouths to take in food or liquid, chew or prepare it, then swallow it down. This process requires coordination and muscles working together.

What is a Swallowing Disorder?

A swallowing disorder, also known as dysphagia, means having difficulty with any part of the swallowing process. This can happen in three stages:

Oral Phase: Involves sucking, chewing, and moving food or liquid into the throat.

Pharyngeal Phase: Initiates the swallow and moves food down the throat while ensuring the airway stays closed to prevent choking.

Esophageal Phase: Opens and closes the esophagus to push food into the stomach. Problems here can cause food to get stuck or lead to acid reflux.

Signs/symptoms of Swallowing Disorders:

  • Coughing or throat clearing while eating or drinking.
  • Wet or gurgly voice after meals.
  • Feeling like something is stuck in the throat.
  • Difficulty breathing or needing extra time to chew or swallow.
  • Weight loss or leakage of food from the mouth.

Complications of Swallowing Disorders:

  • Dehydration or malnutrition.
  • Aspiration, where food or liquid enters the airway.
  • Lung infections like pneumonia.
  • Acid reflux, causing discomfort.

Causes of Swallowing Disorders:

Various conditions can lead to swallowing issues, including:

  • Neurological conditions like stroke, Parkinson’s, or ALS.
  • Head, neck, or mouth injuries or surgeries.
  • Dental problems or poorly fitting dentures.
  • Certain medications causing dry mouth.

Testing for Swallowing Disorders:

A speech therapist can evaluate swallowing abilities through observation and specialized tests like the modified barium swallow or endoscopic assessment.

Treatments for Swallowing Disorders:

Treatment depends on the underlying issues and may involve:

  • Medical interventions like medication for reflux.
  • Nutritional support such as tube feeding if necessary.
  • Speech therapy to improve swallowing techniques and muscle function.
  • Adjustments to eating habits and diet consistency.

Support from Family and Caregivers:

Family members and caregivers play a crucial role by:

  • Understanding the challenges faced by the individual.
  • Following the recommendations of speech therapists.
  • Assisting with exercises and meal preparation.
  • Monitoring food and fluid intake.

Remember: With proper diagnosis and support, many swallowing difficulties can be managed effectively, improving quality of life.

How Speech and Language Therapists help people with Swallowing problems?

Speech therapists, who are like special teachers for speech and swallowing, help with this. They teach exercises and techniques to make swallowing easier and safer. This might include practicing different ways to swallow or learning exercises to strengthen the muscles used for swallowing.

In therapy sessions, speech therapists work closely with their clients to find out what foods or liquids are easier to swallow. They might also suggest changes in diet or posture to help with swallowing. With practice and guidance, individuals with swallowing disorders can learn to eat and drink more comfortably and safely.


Swallowing disorders can significantly impact an individual’s quality of life, but with proper diagnosis and support, many difficulties can be managed effectively. Speech therapists play a vital role in improving swallowing function and safety. If you or a loved one experiences swallowing issues, seeking help from a qualified speech therapist is essential for effective management and improved well-being.