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Dysphagia – a difficult diagnosis to swallow!

This blog is written by Peninsula Health Speech Pathologist and Team Leader Kate Rennie.

Most Australians are unaware how difficulty with swallowing can be frightening and life threatening. It’s why on Wednesday 13 March 2019, I want to promote Swallowing Awareness Day.

The theme for Swallowing Awareness Day in 2019 is: ‘Dysphagia. A difficult diagnosis to swallow!’

I work in the Allied Health Outreach team within Community Health (previously known as Domiciliary Care).  I love that my job takes me into people’s homes where I get to learn so much about their lives and stories and what they usually eat.  The people I work with have a range of conditions that affect their swallowing and communication; depending on the cause, I can help someone to improve their swallowing or to manage a chronic difficulty.

Swallowing Awareness Day is an opportunity to bring attention to swallowing disorders and to connect people with speech pathologists, the professionals who can help.  Speech Pathologists assess and treat people with Dysphagia (difficulty swallowing) – pronounced ‘dis-fay-juh’.

But while dysphagia may be a “difficult diagnosis to swallow,” there is much that can be done to help someone living with swallowing problems.  Helping people to manage their dysphagia at home and enjoy their food again is something I love about my job.  Sometimes, simple strategies can help someone enormously; other times I might need to suggest changing the food or drink texture, or using a rehabilitation technique to improve the swallow. 

John* and his wife Susan have been living with the effects of dysphagia for the last few years.  John has a rare condition which affects his memory and movements, including swallowing.  When I first met John, he would often cough and bring his food back up when eating.  It was something that happened regularly and was quite distressing to both John and Susan.  The dysphagia affected John’s enjoyment of his food and made Susan very fearful that he would choke.

Although I conducted a thorough assessment of his swallow, it was difficult to identify what particular foods were causing issues as it was very variable. It wasn’t until I sat down with him for lunch at home (to further assess his swallow) that we found how best to help.

John needed to use some simple strategies in order to swallow more safely.  Once we worked these out, and created a reminder card to help him remember, John has been able to return to eating all his favourite foods and no longer has difficulty.  Susan reports that now John only very rarely coughs when he eats, and if it does happen, it is sure to be because he has not used the swallowing strategy.  All she needs to do is remind him to read the card.  This has been great for Susan too, as while she does still need to be nearby, she is less worried about him choking and also doesn’t have to take all the responsibility for telling him how to eat.  John and Susan are happy that there was an effective way to manage his swallowing difficulty, which still allowed him to enjoy quite difficult textures. 

Find out more about our speech pathology service here.

*Names have been changed.