Difficulty swallowing, or dysphagia, can easily affect your health and quality of life. Being able to safely swallow without fear of choking is vital to ensure you stay hydrated, eat, and take in adequate nutrition. It also stops liquids and foods from getting into your lungs by preventing you from aspirating, reducing your chances of contracting pneumonia. But what is oropharyngeal dysphagia? Are there signs and symptoms, and how do you deal with them? 

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What is Dysphagia?

Dysphagia is when you develop abnormalities or difficulties during the swallowing process centered around your oropharynx. This is the throat region at the back of your mouth. Generally, the ability to swallow gets put into three distinct categories, depending on the area of the throat and mouth they impact, and they include:

  • Esophageal Dysphagia – If your food can’t move through your esophagus to your stomach, you have esophageal dysphagia. 
  • Oral Dysphagia – If you have trouble swallowing due to a problem in your mouth (usually tongue movement), you have oral dysphagia. 
  • Oropharyngeal or Pharyngeal Dysphagia – This category refers to problems with the food passing through your throat. 

If you or someone you know has oropharyngeal dysphagia, getting enough calories, vitamins, and nutrients can be difficult. Thrive Ice Cream and Thrive Gelato are IDDSI level 3 suitable for Dysphagia diets.

What Are the Symptoms of Oropharyngeal Dysphagia?

There are a variety of symptoms that you can experience if you have a swallowing disorder like oropharyngeal dysphagia, and they include: 

  • Stuck Feeling – It may feel like liquids or food is hard for you to swallow and that it gets caught or stops in your esophagus.
  • Odynophagia – This symptom means you have pain when you try to swallow, and your pain can be in your chest or throat. It’s common for people to think they’re having heartburn or heart-related issues with this symptom. 
  • Coughing – If your food gets to your throat too early, your food comes back up, or parts of it get left in your throat, it’s very common to cough. Since people swallow throughout the day, swallowing and coughing’s connection may not be obvious. 
  • Choking – The feeling of liquids or food sitting or sticking in your throat or esophagus can cause you to cough, which can lodge the food around your airway and make you choke. If saliva or food enters your airway, it can lead to aspiration pneumonia. 
  • Regurgitate – When you regurgitate, food or liquids you previously swallowed come back into your throat or mouth. You won’t have any nausea or retching like you would if you threw up. If the food tastes like the food you ate, you most likely have a swallowing disorder. If it tastes bitter or sour, it comes from your stomach, which is a common GERD symptom.

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Older people sitting on a bench

What Are the Causes of Oropharyngeal Dysphagia?

A variety of factors can cause oropharyngeal dysphagia, but some of the most common ones fall into neurological disorders or structural abnormalities, and they include:

Neurological Disorders

  • Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) – A progressive neurodegenerative disorder that has a negative effect on the nerve cells in your spinal cord and brain can impact the swallowing muscles.
  • Multiple Sclerosis (MS) – This condition can damage the nervous system, affecting the ability to swallow.
  • Myasthenia Gravis – A weakness of the voluntary muscles, including those used in swallowing.
  • Parkinson’s Disease – Movement difficulties associated with Parkinson’s can affect swallowing muscles.
  • Stroke – Damage to brain areas responsible for swallowing can lead to dysphagia.

Structural Abnormalities

  • Aging – As people age, the muscle strength and reflexes required for swallowing may diminish, increasing the risk of oropharyngeal dysphagia.
  • Cleft Lip and Palate – Congenital malformations that might impact the proper swallowing mechanism.
  • Infections or Inflammation – Throat infections, tonsillitis, or pharyngitis can cause temporary oropharyngeal dysphagia.
  • Muscular Disorders – Conditions like muscular dystrophies affect the strength and function of muscles.
  • Surgical or Treatment-Related Causes – Procedures on or around the oropharynx or radiation treatments can result in scar tissue or changes in swallowing dynamics.
  • Tumors – The presence of tumors in the throat or esophagus can lead to swallowing difficulties.
  • Zenker’s Diverticulum – A pouch that can form at the top of the esophagus and collect food particles.

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How Do You Treat Oropharyngeal Dysphagia?

How you treat oropharyngeal dysphagia will depend on what the root cause is, how severe your case is, and the specific nature. Here are some of the common treatments for oropharyngeal dysphagia:

Dietary Modifications

  • Texture-Modified Diets – This includes pureed foods, thickened liquids, or mechanical soft diets with gelato or ice cream to make swallowing easier and safer.
  • Consistency Changes – Adjusting the thickness of liquids can sometimes help people swallow better.

Swallowing Therapy

A speech-language pathologist will design a routine that matches your needs, but this therapy usually involves:

  • Exercises – To help strengthen the muscles that are responsible swallowing.
  • Postural Adjustments – Changing the way the head or body is held to facilitate safer swallowing.
  • Swallowing Strategies – Techniques that can be used to make swallowing safer and more efficient, such as the chin-tuck or effortful swallow.

Medication

  • Some medications can worsen or cause dysphagia, so reviewing and possibly adjusting medications can help.
  • For specific conditions, such as Parkinson’s disease, medications can help alleviate dysphagia by treating the underlying condition.

Medical and Surgical Interventions

  • Dilation – Expanding narrowed areas of the esophagus by passing a balloon-tipped catheter through the constriction.
  • Botox Injections – In cases caused by non-relaxing muscles, Botox can temporarily relax these muscles.
  • Surgery – Surgery may be required to correct the problem for structural abnormalities or certain medical conditions.

Devices and Techniques

  • Neuromuscular Electrical Stimulation – A technique in which electrodes are placed on the skin over the throat muscles to stimulate them, sometimes used in conjunction with traditional swallowing therapy.
Man eating with a plate

How Thrive Ice Cream Can Help

If someone has trouble swallowing, getting the proper nutrition can be a challenge. Our selection of gelato and ice cream packs in essential protein, vitamins, minerals, fiber, and calories in a single serve cup to help fortify your diet. While you still have to swallow, the slightly thicker consistency may make it easier, no matter how severe your oropharyngeal dysphagia may be. 

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