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NINDS Swallowing Disorders Information Page

Synonym(s):   Dysphagia

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What are Swallowing Disorders?

Having trouble swallowing (dysphagia) is a symptom that accompanies a number of neurological disorders. The problem can occur at any stage of the normal swallowing process as food and liquid move from the mouth, down the back of the throat, through the esophagus and into the stomach. Difficulties can range from a total inability to swallow, to coughing or choking because the food or liquid is entering the windpipe, which is referred to as aspiration. When aspiration is frequent a person can be at risk of developing pneumonia. Food may get "stuck" in the throat or individuals may drool because they cannot swallow their saliva. Neurological conditions that can cause swallowing difficulties are: stroke (the most common cause of dysphagia); traumatic brain injury; cerebral palsy; Parkinson disease and other degenerative neurological disorders such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease), multiple sclerosis, progressive supranuclear palsy, Huntington disease, and myasthenia gravis. Muscular dystrophy and myotonic dystrophy are accompanied by dysphagia, which is also the cardinal symptom of oculopharyngeal muscular dystrophy, a rare, progressive genetic disorder.

Is there any treatment?

Changing a person's diet by adding thickeners helps many people, as does learning different ways to eat and chew that reduce the risk for aspiration. Occasionally drug therapy that helps the neurological disorder can also help dysphagia. In a few persons, botulinum toxin injections can help when food or liquid cannot enter the esophagus to get to the stomach. More severely disabled individuals may require surgery or the insertion of feeding tubes.

What is the prognosis?

The prognosis depends upon the type of swallowing problem and the course of the neurological disorder that produces it. In some cases, dysphagia can be partially or completely corrected using diet manipulation or non-invasive methods. In others, especially when the dysphagia is causing aspiration and preventing adequate nutrition and causing weight loss, it may require aggressive intervention such as a feeding tube. For those with progressive degenerative neurological disorders, dysphagia will be only one in a cluster of symptoms and disabilities that have to be treated.

What research is being done?

The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) and other institutes at the National Institutes of Health conduct research related to dysphagia in their clinics and laboratories and support additional research through grants to major medical institutions across the country. Much of this research focuses on finding better ways to treat dysphagia.

NIH Patient Recruitment for Swallowing Disorders Clinical Trials

Organizations

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National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR)
National Institutes of Health, DHHS
31 Center Drive, Room 5B-55
Bethesda, MD   20892
nidcrinfo@mail.nih.gov
http://www.nidcr.nih.gov
Tel: 301-496-4261

National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD)
National Institutes of Health, DHHS
31 Center Drive, MSC 2320
Bethesda, MD   20892-2320
nidcdinfo@nidcd.nih.gov
http://www.nidcd.nih.gov
Tel: 301-496-7243/800-241-1044 800-241-1055 (TTD/TTY)

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Prepared by:
Office of Communications and Public Liaison
National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
National Institutes of Health
Bethesda, MD 20892



NINDS health-related material is provided for information purposes only and does not necessarily represent endorsement by or an official position of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke or any other Federal agency. Advice on the treatment or care of an individual patient should be obtained through consultation with a physician who has examined that patient or is familiar with that patient's medical history.

All NINDS-prepared information is in the public domain and may be freely copied. Credit to the NINDS or the NIH is appreciated.

Last updated February 14, 2014