Living Well: Down the Hatch! — Swallowing help available at MRH in Craig |

Living Well: Down the Hatch! — Swallowing help available at MRH in Craig

We tend to take the process of eating food and drinking liquids for granted — until it gives us trouble.

Many people develop problems swallowing, especially in their later years. Food gets caught in their throats. They may cough when they eat or drink, or feel like they’re choking. Others end up with recurrent pneumonia due to food particles going “down the wrong pipe.”

The good news is that testing and simple treatments for swallowing problems are available right here in Craig. 

Swallowing tests

“When people are having trouble swallowing, I assess their oral and pharyngeal function,” said Joan Parnell, MS, CCC-SLP, certified speech language pathologist with Memorial Regional Health. “The whole swallowing sequence takes two to three seconds. We don’t usually think about it, but it’s a complex set of movements of the tongue and throat. These muscles sometimes weaken as people age, just like muscles all over our bodies do.”

In her assessments, Parnell gives patients bites of different foods, ranging from applesauce to pears in juice to bread and chips.

“Sometimes, they’re having trouble with a certain texture,” she said.

Once she’s listened to patients’ descriptions of their swallowing challenges and observed their swallowing difficulties in person, Parnell makes treatment recommendations. She might suggest dietary changes, eating posture adjustments or mouth exercises.

“Sometimes, people just need to tuck their chins when they eat or turn their head to the side,” Parnell said. “Sometimes, thickening liquids helps because it slows the liquid going down.”

Swallowing therapy

Parnell may also offer patients a swallowing therapy called VitalStim. She is certified to administer this treatment, which involves stimulating the swallowing muscles with mild electrical current.

In her office, she attaches quarter-sized electrodes near the patient’s chin and on top of the larynx. Patients do swallowing exercises while Parnell sends current on and off, on and off, to the electrodes.

“It feels like a little shock,” she said. “It’s strong, but it’s not painful. It’s startling at first, but most people get used to in a just a few moments, and I adjust the strength of the current based on what each patient can tolerate.”

Parnell said that VitalStim is similar to the electrical stimulation physical therapists sometimes use to help patients strengthen compromised arm and leg muscles.

“It kicks the nerves in those muscles into gear,” Parnell said. “It retrains them to move.”

Patients return for a number of sessions of VitalStim, usually twice per week for four to six weeks. She said about 80 percent of patients notice marked improvement in their swallowing abilities post-therapy.

“I recently worked with a patient who had esophageal scarring from throat cancer radiation,” Parnell said. “He couldn’t swallow and was being fed through a feeding tube. It took a few sessions before he could even feel the VitalStim shock sensation, but finally, the muscles started moving again. After several months of therapy, he was able to eat again. This enabled him to socialize and eat with his family again.

“VitalStim isn’t right for everyone, but for many patients, it gets them eating and drinking more safely faster. And, they don’t have to drive hours away multiple times for the therapy. It’s available in Craig.”

Most insurance plans cover swallowing assessment and treatment with a doctor’s order. For more information, call MRH speech therapy at 970-824-5992.

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