A speech-language pathologist is the obvious professional to visit for a communication problem. Not as many people realize they can also treat swallowing disorders, or dysphagia.
Johnna Johnson is the speech-language pathologist at Regional One Health’s East Campus Center for Rehabilitative Medicine. Johnson has special certification as a VitalStim provider to help patients who are experiencing dysphagia.
Johnson said there’s an easy way to tell if you should seek therapy.
“You should see a speech therapist if every time you eat or drink something you start coughing. That’s your body’s way of saying your swallow isn’t working right,” she said.
It’s especially concerning if your dysphagia is causing weight loss.
Johnson said everybody has something “go down the wrong pipe” now and then, usually if you eat too fast or don’t chew well enough. That’s actually a good description for what happens with a swallowing disorder.
Coughing is the body’s response when something incorrectly goes into the lungs. If that happens every time you drink or eat, something is wrong in the swallowing process.
Swallowing involves complex coordination between the mouth, tongue, throat and esophagus. A breakdown in any of those areas can cause dysphagia.
Johnson said there are several possible causes.
Esophageal dysphagia (which needs medical attention) may include the sensation of food being stuck in your throat. Causes may include:
- A problem with the esophageal muscle
- Spasms in the esophagus
- A narrowed esophagus due to tumors or scarring from acid reflux
- A foreign body partially blocking the throat or esophagus
Oropharyngeal dysphagia may involve weak throat muscles. This may be caused by neurological disorders such as stroke, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy or Parkinson’s disease. Cancer and cancer treatment like radiation is another possible cause.
Older patients are at higher risk for dysphagia. Certain conditions also put patients at higher risk:
- Parkinson’s disease
- Multiple sclerosis
- Muscular dystrophy
- GERD (severe acid reflux)
Johnson can help patients with weak musculature deficits that cause dysphagia. She focuses on helping patients strengthen the muscles that allow them to swallow properly.
Johnson uses proven exercises to improve strength, mobility and control of the muscles. She can also work with patients on diet modification and compensatory strategies.
Her special certification as a VitalStim provider is a huge benefit for her patients. VitalStim is a non-invasive therapy.
Small electrical currents stimulate the muscles used in swallowing. It is combined with traditional therapy to treat dysphagia.
Johnson said it is a safe and effective method that is proven to help patients with weakness in the pharyngeal muscle.
Johnson said there is hope for patients who are having difficulty swallowing. With a therapist’s help they can either reverse the problem or find ways to alleviate their difficulty.