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Understanding Dysphagia

By Beth Rubio, Chief Clinical Officer

My child is having difficulty swallowing so I took her to the doctor, who used the term Dysphagia. What is Dysphagia?

Dysphagia is a swallowing disorder and can be found in children who have neurological disorders. It is the medical term for the symptom of difficulty in swallowing. Although dysphagia is a symptom, the term is sometimes used as a condition in its own right.

Difficulties can range from a total inability to swallow, to coughing or choking. In some neurological disorders, children may not be able to develop their swallowing reflex (a reflex that allows food and liquids to move safely through the pharynx).  Food may get “stuck” in the throat or the child may drool because they cannot swallow their saliva.

Weak tongue or cheek muscles may also make it hard to move food around in the mouth to chew or to close the mouth properly to aid in swallowing. Food pieces that are too large for swallowing may enter the throat and block the passage of air. Weak throat muscles cannot move all of the food toward the stomach. Food and liquids can go the wrong way into the lungs causing aspiration and aspiration pneumonia. Dysphagia also often makes it difficult to take in enough calories and fluids. Undiagnosed dysphagia can also result in dehydration, malnutrition, and renal failure.

When asked where food gets stuck many children will often point to the neck region as the site of obstruction. The actual obstruction is always at or below the level at which the level of obstruction is perceived. There are a variety of treatments for various types of dysphagia including practicing muscle exercises to strengthen weak facial muscles or to improve coordination and using thickeners. However, oral feeding or drinking may not be possible for some children, who may need to have a feeding tube.