Difficulty Swallowing After Stroke (Dysphagia)

woman swallowing water from a glass

Your stroke may cause a swallowing disorder called dysphagia. If not identified and managed, it can lead to poor nutrition, pneumonia and disability.

Aspiration is a common problem for people with dysphagia. It occurs when something you’ve swallowed enters the airway and lungs. Normally, aspiration causes a violent cough, but a stroke can reduce sensation. In this case, you may not know you’re aspirating (silent aspiration).

While in the hospital after a stroke, you are screened to determine your ability to swallow safely. If you have a problem with swallowing safely, you may not be allowed to eat until a speech-language pathologist evaluates how well:

  • Muscles in your mouth move.
  • You can swallow.
  • Your voice box works.

The speech-language pathologist may recommend you change what you eat and drink. That’s because some foods are hard to chew and thin liquids are often hard to swallow. The speech-language pathologist will determine when it’s safe to eat more normal foods.

Adequate nutrition is essential. So if it’s not safe for you to swallow, a feeding tube may be suggested to help meet your nutritional needs.

Treatment Plans

The speech-language pathologist develops a treatment plan to meet your specific needs, which includes exercises to improve coordination of muscle movements in the mouth and throat. To help compensate for lost function, the plan may also call for you to:

  • Turn your head to one side to provide better airway protection.
  • Take only small sips of liquid to minimize splashing into the airway.

Common Precautions

These common precautions may help you swallow more safely:

  • Sit up straight when you eat or drink.
  • Take small bites and sips.
  • Take your time.
  • Clear all food from your mouth.