You might call it snack time with a purpose. A patient sits in a chair, sipping water, crunching a cookie, and tasting cherry pie filling. It's all being done under the watchful eye of an x-ray. The reason? To make sure the taster is swallowing normally.
Stormont-Vail speech pathologist Lorraine Brazier explained they're watching how the person is chewing their food, how they're able to bring it over the back of the tongue, and whether their esophageal flap covers their airway correctly to keep food from going getting into it.
Brazier says swallowing disorders typically affect elderly people, but she's also seen it in some infants, and people with diseases that affect the muscles, like Parkinson’s, a stroke, or ALS. In those patients, the swallow isn't strong enough, food gets stuck in the throat, or falls into the airway and the person reacts.
Stormont-Vail speech pathologist Carrie Benson said that if on a consistent basis you are choking or coughing when you eat or drink, it might be a sign you need help.
Help is important because the problem can have serious consequences. Benson said when liquid or food goes into the lungs, the moist environment can cause bacteria to grow which can lead to pneumonia.
Luckily, once a video swallow study diagnoses the problem, it can often be helped. Brazier said sometimes it's just a matter of changing one's posture, sitting up straight or bowing the head to protect the airway. Other times, they need change their diet and only eat foods of certain moisture or consistency. Therapy can also work to strengthen the swallowing muscles.
Those who suspect they may have a swallowing disorder should talk to their doctor. He or she may refer them for a swallowing study.