Speech-language pathologists’ scope of practice includes treatment of swallowing difficulties, known as dysphagia. As a result, a large part of a Speech-language pathologist’s time includes educating clients and their families on dysphagia and techniques to minimize potential adverse consequences. These adverse conditions may include malnutrition, dehydration, weight loss, and aspiration pneumonia. It is quite common for clients and their families to have little or no familiarity with swallowing disorders and the associated risk for aspiration pneumonia. Hence education is a central part of treatment.
Dysphagia is difficulty swallowing foods, liquids, medications, or even saliva. It accompanies many diseases including stroke, head and neck cancer, Parkinson’s Disease, dementia, cerebral palsy, and esophageal conditions. According to the National Foundation for Swallowing Disorders, dysphagia affects up to 15 million adults in the United States. Past research has revealed that 1 in 25 individuals will experience some type of dysphagia within their lifetime, including 22% of those aged 50 and older (ASHA, 2008; Bhattacharyya, 2014). Dysphagia poses several risks including dehydration, malnutrition, weight loss, and aspiration pneumonia.
Aspiration pneumonia is a lung infection caused by bacteria. It may occur when food, saliva, liquid, or vomit is inhaled into the airway or lungs instead of being correctly swallowed into the esophagus and stomach. This condition can be observed as a person coughing or choking while eating and drinking, although some people aspirate with no symptoms at all. Aspiration pneumonia is often diagnosed using a chest x-ray along with assessing clinical signs and symptoms. A chest x-ray can show opacities or infiltrates that may be associated with pneumonia.
A Speech-language pathologist assess clients’ swallow function for signs and symptoms of aspiration. These signs and symptoms may include choking, coughing, throat clearing, wet vocal quality, wheezing, pain, feeling of something “stuck” in throat, watery eyes, reflux, or runny nose during meals. Treatment focuses on teaching clients and their families exercises, compensatory swallow strategies, and diet modification techniques to improve swallowing ability and to reduce the risk for aspiration pneumonia. Other factors are also considered as well, including improving oral health to reduce the bacteria in the mouth and assisting clients with managing reflux symptoms.
As part of our commitment to overall wellness for our patients, Speech Care at Home’s quality of life improvements extend past just preventing aspiration pneumonia. Our Speech Language Pathologist knows that mental health contains components related to the individuals’ ability to achieve mobility and freedom. For more information on our wellness services, please call us at 813-344-3207.