Dysphagia support and equipment
'Dysphagia' is difficult or uncomfortable swallowing, reduced control of food and fluid in the mouth, and trouble taking some medication. Chewing problems can be part of dysphagia.
Long-term dysphagia may lead to serious health challenges, and to emotional and social issues.
Dysphagia is more common in older people and people with an intellectual or physical disability such as brain injury or progressive neurological conditions, although anyone can have dysphagia. The condition sometimes results from head or neck surgery.
People with dysphagia may experience:
- coughing, throat clearing, choking or discomfort while eating or drinking
- food remaining in the mouth after swallowing
- a wet or gurgly voice during or immediately following meals
- excessive loss of saliva (drooling) or loss or food and drink from the mouth
- slow chewing and movement of food around the mouth
- food coming out of the nose (nasal regurgitation) or sneezing during a meal
- frequent chest infections or pneumonia
- gastric reflux or vomiting.
Consult a doctor for advice and treatment if you or someone you know is having swallowing difficulties.
Speech pathologists assess swallowing function and advise on strategies and treatment where there is a problem.
Treatments differ depending on the cause of the dysphagia; for example, dysphagia resulting from a stroke may improve over time, so relearning and practising swallowing may be the focus of treatment.
Dysphagia caused by developmental disabilities may be more persistent, so teaching long‑term habits and compensatory strategies is important.
Dysphagia arising from progressive conditions may gradually get worse, so the focus might be on adapting diet and mealtime strategies, to conserve the person’s energy. (Dysphagia can be tiring for those experiencing it.)
Independent Living Centre
An Independent Living Centre (ILC) speech pathologist is available by appointment to provide free information and advice about mealtime equipment, and eating and drinking solutions.
Adapted diet and eating habits help manage dysphagia for people experiencing food- and drink-related difficulties.
These adaptations can include:
- avoiding hard-to-chew foods
- mincing, mashing, or pureeing food
- thickening fluids to help make them more manageable
- eating smaller portions
- taking more time to eat
- changing body and head position to ease swallowing.
People with severe dysphagia may need feeding tubes to take in all or some of their food, fluids and medications.
Adapted equipment is available: cups, cutlery, plates and straws that may help people with dysphagia during mealtimes.
Adapted cups may help people with dysphagia who experience difficulty with drinking. These cups include:
- spouted cups that help deliver liquid to the middle of the mouth
- cut-out cups that are designed with a cut-out space for the nose when the cup is tipped
- cups that regulate the amount of liquid per sip to prevent gulping large amounts of liquid.
Angled or bendable cutlery with built-up or easy-grip handles can make it easier to control the placement of food in the mouth. Improved control of the cutlery may help people who struggle to use unmodified tools because of limited wrist movement.
Adapted plates and bowls
Plates with raised edges or guards help keep food on the plate while it is being scooped up. Slip-resistant mats and other products help stop tableware slipping on smooth surfaces.
Insulated plates and bowls keep foods warmer longer, keeping meals more palatable for people who need extended time to eat.
Other mealtime equipment
Other equipment helps people with dysphagia during mealtimes, such as:
- straws with non-returnable valves that help people who cannot easily suck liquid up the entire length of a straw
- hands-free drinking systems that can be placed on a table, or mounted to personal equipment such as a wheelchair
- clothes protectors that protect staining from spilled food or drink, and dribbling or drooling
- adapted kitchen utensils for tasks such as chopping food, pouring liquids or opening food containers.