“I don’t feel like eating as much as I loved to.”
“It always gets stuck in my throat; I’m scared to eat.”
“I don’t want to eat out with friends anymore, it’s embarrassing.”
Just like breathing, swallowing is something most of us do unconsciously. It is so essential to everyday life that we cannot even imagine not being able to swallow freely! The ability to eat and drink safely is not only necessary for our health and survival, it significantly impacts our quality of life. Could you imagine having food stuck in your throat every time you eat, unable to help it pass quickly with a simple cough or second swallow? How about knowing for a fact that there is nothing lodged, but still experiencing the very real sensation of something sitting in your throat whenever you go to swallow?
Dysphagia is a term regularly used by medical and allied health professionals to identify this condition. It refers to difficulty in swallowing foods or liquids due to various genetic, acquired or developmental factors. Have you heard of it?
Understandably, the reality of dysphagia has the potential to create negative mealtime experiences, and, given that the table is one of our favourite places to gather and connect socially, it is easy to believe that the Effects of dysphagia are considered as highly associated with mental illness (Check the Aldridge & Taylor, 2011 article for more information). Research supports the negative Mental Health effects by showing that dysphagia may limit the social opportunities and pleasure of mealtimes leading to reduced quality of relationships with significant others (3 Steps Toward Understanding The Psychological Aspects Of Dysphagia). Many affected have attested to experiencing anxieties around meals and altogether avoiding social opportunities where they may require assistance with eating. Naturally, this can quickly lead to self-isolation and a sense of exclusion around mealtimes, negatively impacting a person’s sense of dignity, self-esteem, and overall healthy lifestyle.
According to Speech Pathology Australia, this is the experience of approximately 16-22% of Australians ages 50+. With stats like these, many of us will know someone who finding themself in a similar position right now!
Unfortunately, even with help readily available, it appears the prevalence of people with both dysphagia and mental illness is increasing. This could be because those experiencing swallowing difficulties often conceal or deny their struggle. One study found that only 36% of people with dysphagia acknowledge their condition, and only 32% reach for support from professionals. Many have been found as unlikely to take the initiative themselves to inform professionals of their difficulties unless they had been encouraged by others.
So, what are the symptoms of dysphagia? Are there any signs that we can keep an eye out for in our friends, family, or even ourselves that could help identify dysphagia in action?
Here are some common indicators of swallowing difficulties:
- Coughing/throat clearing during mealtimes
- Avoidance of specific types of foods or drinks
- Avoidance of social mealtimes
- Running out of breath when eating
- Unintentional weight loss
- Unexplained or recurring chest infections
- Food getting stuck in the throat including medication
- Increased eating/drinking time
Do these signs sound familiar? If yes, here are the steps you can take next:
- Know that it is a good thing to seek advice about your swallowing ability; you can expect that your enquiry is to be taken seriously! You are not alone and there are many medical and Allied Health services out there that would gladly help you get to the bottom of your concern.
- Make notes about the signs that you have noticed. Is there a certain type of food, time of day, or frequency that you are noticing? This type of information is always handy for you and your health practitioner to share.
- Ask a professional for help! You may talk to your GP and they will write a referral to a speech pathologist for a swallowing assessment. Here at The Speechie Spot, no referrals are needed to have an assessment, so if you are concerned about your swallowing capabilities, you are most welcome to contact us to schedule a consultation. Check out our Contact Us page for more information.
By Hailie Lim, Speech Pathologist
https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00455-011-9378-5 (Aldridge & Taylor, 2011). Dysphagia is a common and serious problem for adults with mental illness: a systematic review.
https://www.pc.gov.au/inquiries/completed/aged-care/submissions/subdr752.pdf SPA – 16-22% dysphagia.