For most, eating seems like such a simple and enjoyable task. However, eating isn’t so easy for everyone. Dysphagia is a neglected disorder that causes difficulty, inability, or sometimes pain in swallowing. There are as many as 15 million people in the U.S. affected by dysphagia with around a million people diagnosed every year. Dysphagia comes from the Greek root dys, meaning “difficulty or disordered” and phagia, meaning “to eat”.
Swallowing is typically an automatic reflex with around 50 pairs of muscles and nerves working together in a 3-stage process. The first stage is called the oral phase. This is when the tongue and jaw work together to chew and mix food with saliva, preparing it to be swallowed. The second stage, called the pharyngeal phase, is when food or liquid is pushed to the back of the mouth triggering the swallowing reflex. This is when the larynx closes and breathing stops, preventing anything from entering the airways, and the food passes through the pharynx (throat). Finally, the third stage, called the esophageal phase, is when food or liquid enters the esophagus and is carried to the stomach.
When a person has dysphagia, there is a problem at some point of the swallowing process. Some are born with irregular swallowing mechanism, while others may have a condition that has weakened or damaged the muscles and nerves used for swallowing. There are 2 types of dysphagia. The first is oropharyngeal dysphagia (high dysphagia) where the problem is in the mouth and/or throat and is usually caused by a neurological issue. The second type is esophageal dysphagia (low dysphagia) where there is a problem in the esophagus and is usually because of a blockage or irritation.
There are complications that may occur if dysphagia isn’t managed properly. Malnutrition and dehydration can easily happen if dysphagia is preventing proper calorie and nutrient intake. Choking can occur if food is too big to swallow, blocking the airway, and for someone with dysphagia, coughing sometimes cannot remove it. And food or liquid that enters the lungs may result in a lung infection called aspiration pneumonia.
The VitalStim Therapy System is an FDA approved, non-invasive therapy specifically designed to treat dysphagia. It is a specialized form of neuromuscular electrical stimulation that teaches the throat muscles needed for swallowing. Electrodes are placed on specific swallowing muscles on the throat while practicing feeding and other exercises. This increases muscle strength, accelerates cortical reorganization, and increases the effectiveness of the exercises.
In a study with about 900 patients, over 4,500 stimulations were administered, all with no negative side effects, even in patients with pacemakers. VitalStim is not only more cost effective than a feeding tube; it also has a 97.5% success rate in restoring swallowing function past the point of even needing a feeding tube!