Coping with Dysphagia

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What is Dysphagia?

Dysphagia is the medical term for having difficulties in swallowing. People get the feeling that food is “sticking” to their throat or chest, though the sensation is actually in the esophagus. The esophagus is a tube that runs from mouth to the stomach and transports food. People with dysphagia have problems swallowing food or even liquids, while yet others who are not able to swallow at all. Other signs of dysphagia include choking or coughing while drinking or eating, or bringing up food – sometimes even through the nose. Dysphagia may be related to difficulty in swallowing food or liquid or both.

Types of Dysphagia:

When the patient is not able to move the food from mouth to upper esophagus, then he is suffering from Oropharyngeal dysphagia. When the difficulty is experienced in moving food to the stomach from the esophagus then the patient is suffering from esophageal dysphagia. Dysphagia can occur at any age but people in old age are more prone.

Patient suffering from Oropharyngeal dysphagia

Signs and Symptoms

Symptoms of oropharyngeal dysphagia include:

  • Drooling
  • Difficulty trying to swallow
  • Coughing while swallowing
  • Breathing in food while swallowing
  • Vomiting liquid through your nose
  • Weak voice
  • Choking or breathing saliva into your lungs while swallowing
  • Weight loss
Patient suffering from esophageal dysphagia

Symptoms of esophageal dysphagia include:

  • Pressure in the mid-chest area
  • Chest pain
  • Chronic heartburn
  • The sensation of food stuck in your throat or chest
  • Pain with swallowing
  • Belching
  • Sore throat

What Causes It?

Several conditions can cause dysphagia. In children, it is often due to:

  • Physical malformations, conditions such as muscular dystrophy or cerebral palsy
  • GERD Gastroesophageal reflux disease
  • During infancy, if Open heart procedures were performed

Dysphagia in adults may be due to:

  • Conditions causing the esophagus to narrow
  • Tumors (cancerous or benign)
  • Neuromuscular conditions
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease GERD
  • Stroke
  • If muscles in the esophagus do not relax to let food pass through into the stomach.

Other risk factors include:

  • Extreme alcohol use
  • Smoking
  • If dentures or teeth are in poor condition
  • Certain medications also bring about Dysphagia
  • Dysphagia may increase as age advances. About 60% of nursing home patients suffer from Dysphagia

Treatment Options

Doctors typically treat dysphagia with:

  • Medicine
  • Procedures to open the esophagus
  • Surgery
  • Exercises

Depending upon the cause, complication, or seriousness, the treatment may vary. Patients who can eat and the risk of complications are low, need not be hospitalized. But if the esophagus is badly blocked then chances of being hospitalized are more likely. Children or infants suffering from dysphagia are mostly hospitalized.

In treating oropharyngeal dysphagia, the doctors may teach special exercises to activate the nerves that enable swallowing or positioning of the head that enables swallowing.

To treat esophageal dysphagia concerning esophageal muscle that cannot relax, the doctor may treat it with an endoscope, attaching a balloon to dilate the esophagus.

He may prescribe PPIs proton pump inhibitors or antacids if the patient suffers from GERD. He may prescribe medicines that relax the esophagus and prevents spasms.

If dysphagia happens due to tumor or, the doctor may suggest surgery.

Alternative Therapies

Pregnant women and others on medication must consult doctors for alternative therapies.

HERBS

Herbs also help to tone and strengthen body’s system. But since they are capable of acting on other medications and may have possible side effects, it is best to consult your Naturopath before taking them.

You can use herbs in three forms-

  • Dried extracts – Powders, Teas, or Capsules
  • Glycerites- Glycerine extracts
  • Tinctures- Alcohol extracts

Dried Extracts as Teas- It is best to make tea with 1 tsp. herb per cup of hot water. Steep covered 5 to 10 minutes for flowers or leaf. About 10 to 20 minutes for roots. Daily drink 2 to 4 cups.

Use the following tinctures:

Glycyrrhiza glabra or Licorice– Standardized deglycyrrhizinated licorice or DGL extract. It can be taken 1 hour or 2 hours after meals. It helps to reduce swelling, spasms, work as a pain relief including for gastrointestinal tract. The chemical licorice is removed from DGL as it causes high blood pressure. So DGL is recommended for this condition.

Treating GERD: taking chewable lozenges are the best way to treat GERD as they are best form of licorice. Licorice interacts with medications so people with heart disese especially are not advised to take it.

Slippery Elm, botanically known as Ulmus Fulva

In form of tea, it works as a demulcent – an agent that protects mucous membrane and gives relief on minor inflammation or pain. Their help-span lasts for about 30 minutes. They are also known as muco-protective agents. You can mix one tsp. of slippery elm with water and take it three or four times during the day. Slippery elm can react with medicines so please consult your doctor before taking it.

Marshmallow also known as Althaea officinalis

In form of tea it helps to moisturize and smooth the tissues that have inflammation. Make tea with 2 to 5 g of dried leaf in one cup of boiling water or 5g of dried root. Strain the tea and let it cool. If you suffer from diabetes then avoid marshmallows as they rect with diabetes medication and lithium. These herbs have soothing properties, but since they can interfere with absorption of other medicines, it is recommended to take them maintaining a gap of 2 hours from other medicines.

The following herbs help to relax:

  • Skullcap or Scutellaria lateriflora: It is great for sedative effect and also works as an antispasmodic.
  • Valerian or Valeriana officinalis: it specifically help digestion and also aids in relaxation. It is a great help for those who are prone to anxiety or depression.
  • Linden flowers or Tilia cordata:  It functions as a diuretic and is also antispasmodic.

NOTE: These herbs must not be taken if you are consuming alcohol or sedative medicines.

These herbs should not be combined with sedative medications or alcohol. Herbs should not be used long term, unless directed by a physician.

Homeopathy:

Other alternative medication may include homeopathic medication. The homeopaths look into your constitution which includes physical, intellectual and emotional buildup.

The homeopath may recommend remedies as Baptesia tinctoria [for those who are able to taken liquids only], Baryta carbonica [having large tonsils], Carbo vegatabilis [bloating and indigestion and worsens while lying down if also suffering from fatigue and flatulence], Ignatia [for a lump in throat, cough back spasms- symptoms showup in grief, Lachesis [complete discomfort felt around the throat even tight clothing at the neck bothers.

Acupuncture:

It does wonders for those who suffer from dysphagia due to stroke as it stimulates swallowing.

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