Swallowing is a complex motor skill that requires the coordination of a multitude of nerves and muscles. Individuals with neurological conditions such as cerebral palsy, dementia, cervical spine injury, or a stroke, may experience difficulty swallowing. Known as dysphagia, symptoms of swallowing difficulties can range from excess saliva production to choking while eating. Further complications such as aspiration pneumonia may also occur.
Like with any other weak or uncoordinated muscles, exercises may help to strengthen and build coordination of the muscles and nerves associated with swallowing.
Speech and occupational therapists are specifically trained to asses swallow function, and will develop a dysphagia treatment plan that may include exercises specifically aimed at improving the ability to swallow. Your therapist may also assign simple swallow strengthening exercises for dysphagia—like those below—for you to do at home.
How to Perform: First, lie flat on your back and raise your head slightly off the ground. Have your head raised high enough so that your eyes are fixated on your toes. Hold this position for a few seconds and then place your head back down. Repeat this same movement a few more times. For best results, do this exercise three to six times throughout the day. Over time, you can increase the duration of the head lift and the number of repetitions.
How to Perform: Place multiple small pieces of paper on a towel in front of you. Next, place a straw in your mouth and suck on the straw, allowing the paper to get picked up by the tip of the straw. Keep sucking on the straw as you carry the straw over to a cup, and stop sucking to release the paper into the cup. You should aim to successfully place all of the pieces of paper into the cup. You can start out with just 3 to 5 pieces of paper and slowly increase to around 10.
How to Perform: While dry swallowing, squeeze all of the muscles associated with swallowing as hard as possible. Repeat this up to 10 times in a single session. You should do 3 sessions of this exercise per day to sufficiently strengthen your muscles.
How to Perform: Take a deep breath and keep holding your breath as you place a small bite of food in your mouth and swallow. Then, cough to clear any remnants of saliva or food which may have gone down past your vocal cords. Lastly, exhale. During your first few attempts at the exercise, do not use food. Once you have sufficient practice with this exercise, you can try it with a tiny piece of food in your mouth.
How to Perform: This exercise is basically the same as the previous but is a little more intense. This time, you should bear down while taking a deep breath and then swallow hard.
*Please undertake these exercises only at the recommendation and with the guidance of your treating therapist.
Related Reading: How Does Feeding Therapy Work?
At NAPA Center, we take an individualized approach to therapy because we understand that each child is unique with very specific needs. In addition to physical, occupational, and speech therapy, NAPA also offers specialized VitalStim therapy and intensive feeding therapy services through an interdisciplinary model. Children with feeding and swallowing disorders often present with delays or deficits across these areas. Thus, a child narrowly defined as being a “picky eater” or as having “sensory feeding difficulties” often possess oral motor challenges that contribute to their feeding challenges and vice versa. Our intensive feeding program takes a global developmental approach in treating dysphagia (swallowing difficulties) and feeding challenges. If your child needs our services, we will work closely with you to select the best therapies for them, creating a customized program specific to your child’s needs and your family’s goals. If you’re interested in learning more about pediatric swallowing therapy at NAPA Center, send us a contact form and our team will be in touch shortly!