How to Improve Swallowing Following a Stroke

Written by thomas king
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According to the American Stroke Association, 65 per cent of stroke survivors develop a swallowing disorder called dysphagia. Dysphagia can be very serious. If left untreated it can lead to pneumonia and other respiratory problems, malnutrition, dehydration, and difficulty communicating. Dysphagia can be treated, though the length and nature of the treatment will vary depending on the individual and the nature of the damage.

Skill level:
Moderately Challenging


  1. 1

    Determine if surgery or medication is an option. This will depend on the exact nature of the swallowing difficulties. To determine this, doctors will use a variety of tests that allow them to look at different parts of the swallowing mechanism. One such test is a video fluoroscopy, which videotapes a patient as they swallow. Once the exact defect is known, the doctor will be able to determine if surgery or medication is a viable option. If not, the services of a speech-language pathologist will likely be required.

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    Exercise to coordinate your swallowing muscles. According to the Mayo Clinic, certain exercises can coordinate your swallowing muscles and thus improve swallowing. These include range of motion exercises. Range of motion exercises involve moving a structure (such as the tongue) as far as possible from the rest position and holding it for a few seconds.

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    Re-stimulate the nerves that trigger the swallowing reflex. According to Dr. Patrick McCaffrey, professor and coordinator of the Communication Sciences and Disorders Graduate Program at California State University, stroke victims with dysphagia can trigger the swallowing reflex by using an exaggerated sucking technique. To do this, suck with the lips closed and then pull the tongue vertical and backwards prior to swallowing attempts. It may help to practice by sucking on a Popsicle stick. According to Dr. McCaffrey, the sucking action will pull saliva to the back of the mouth which in turn triggers the swallowing reflex.

  4. 4

    Learn to compensate. Regaining full pre-stroke swallowing abilities may not be possible in some cases. Thus, compensation is necessary in order to avoid malnutrition. This may include turning your head to one side while you eat to provide better airway protection, or taking only small sips of liquid as to avoid splashing liquid into the airway.

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    Be cautious. Swallowing with dysphagia can be dangerous. The American Stroke Association recommends sitting upright while you eat or drink, taking small bites or sips, and being careful to clear all the food from your mouth.

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