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Life after stroke: What to expect

Navigating Swallowing Difficulties After a Stroke: Understanding Dysphagia

Woman in hospital room

Swallowing is a complex process that involves the coordinated movement of various muscles and structures in the throat. However, after a stroke, individuals may experience difficulties with swallowing, a condition known as dysphagia.

Navigating Swallowing Difficulties After a Stroke: Understanding Dysphagia

Swallowing is a complex process that involves the coordinated movement of various muscles and structures in the throat. However, after a stroke, individuals may experience difficulties with swallowing, a condition known as dysphagia. Dysphagia can significantly impact a person's ability to eat, drink, and maintain proper nutrition and hydration. Understanding the causes, symptoms, and management of swallowing difficulties after a stroke is crucial for the well-being and recovery of stroke survivors.


Here are some key points to consider:

  1. Causes of Dysphagia: Dysphagia after a stroke can result from the damage or disruption of neural pathways that control the muscles involved in swallowing. Depending on the location and extent of the stroke, the affected areas may include the brainstem, cerebral cortex, or cranial nerves responsible for swallowing. The muscles and nerves involved in the swallowing process may become weakened, coordination may be impaired, or the sensation of swallowing may be altered.

  2. Symptoms of Dysphagia: The symptoms of dysphagia can vary depending on the severity and nature of the swallowing difficulties. Common signs include:

    • Coughing or choking while eating or drinking

    • Feeling of food getting stuck in the throat or chest

    • Drooling or excessive saliva

    • Gurgling or wet voice after swallowing

    • Recurrent respiratory infections

    • Weight loss or malnutrition

    • Avoidance of certain foods or liquids due to difficulty swallowing

It is important to recognize these symptoms and communicate them to healthcare professionals to facilitate timely assessment and appropriate management.

  1. Assessment and Diagnosis: Healthcare professionals, such as speech-language pathologists, play a crucial role in assessing and diagnosing dysphagia after a stroke. They may conduct a comprehensive swallowing evaluation, which may include clinical observations, swallowing trials with different food and liquid consistencies, and instrumental assessments such as videofluoroscopic swallowing study (VFSS) or fiberoptic endoscopic evaluation of swallowing (FEES). These evaluations help determine the nature and severity of the swallowing difficulties and guide the development of personalized management plans.

  2. Management and Treatment: Management of dysphagia after a stroke aims to ensure safe and efficient swallowing, reduce the risk of aspiration (when food or liquid enters the airway), and maintain adequate nutrition and hydration. Treatment options may include:

    • Diet modifications: Adjustments to the texture and consistency of food and liquids to facilitate safe swallowing. This may involve soft or pureed foods, thickened liquids, or other modifications recommended by a speech-language pathologist or dietitian.

    • Swallowing techniques: Specific strategies and exercises taught by a speech-language pathologist to improve swallowing coordination and muscle strength.

    • Assistive devices: The use of specialized utensils, adaptive cups, or other assistive devices to enhance swallowing safety.

    • Medication adjustments: In some cases, medication management may be necessary to address underlying causes or conditions contributing to dysphagia.

    • Feeding tubes: In severe cases where oral intake is not safe or sufficient, a feeding tube may be considered as a temporary or long-term solution to ensure adequate nutrition and hydration.

  3. Rehabilitation and Support: Rehabilitation plays a crucial role in the management of dysphagia after a stroke. Speech-language pathologists with expertise in swallowing disorders can provide individualized therapy to improve swallowing function and maximize independence. Rehabilitation may also include addressing underlying conditions such as muscle weakness, coordination difficulties, or cognitive impairments that can impact swallowing.

It is important for stroke survivors and their caregivers to be proactive in seeking support and guidance from healthcare professionals. They can provide education on safe swallowing techniques, recommendations for dietary modifications, and ongoing monitoring of swallowing function. Additionally, a multidisciplinary approach involving dietitians, occupational therapists, and neurologists can further support the management of dysphagia and address related concerns.

Swallowing difficulties after a stroke can significantly impact a person's quality of life and overall well-being. However, with proper assessment, management strategies, and rehabilitation, individuals can regain swallowing function, reduce the risk of complications, and enjoy a safe and satisfying eating experience.

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