Eating Problems Common in Stroke Survivors
Many stroke survivors find it difficult to eat because parts of the brain that control swallowing were damaged by the stroke. According to the Stroke Association, dysphagia is a swallowing disorder that occurs in nearly 65 percent of stroke patients. If not identified and treated, dysphagia can negatively impact a stroke survivor’s recovery and future health.
“A stroke survivor with dysphagia may not be able to feel food on one or both sides of their mouth or have problems chewing food, or they may have a dry mouth from not being able to make enough saliva—all of which increases their risk of aspiration and choking,” explains Suzanne DeTota, speech-language pathologist with Houston Healthcare who specializes in the rehabilitation of stroke survivors.
According to DeTota, aspiration—inhaling food or liquid into the airways or lungs—is a common and potentially serious problem for stroke survivors. “For a healthy person, aspiration would make them cough really hard to clear the airway, but someone recovering from a stroke won’t be able to do that. The food or liquid will stay in the lungs and can cause pneumonia,” she says.
To ensure that stroke survivors with dysphagia receive adequate nutrition during recovery, speech-language pathologists like DeTota evaluate the patient’s swallowing ability to determine if they can safely swallow solids or liquids by mouth. If it’s not safe for a patient to swallow, a feeding tube will be used. Based on the results of the swallowing tests, DeTota creates an individualized rehabilitation plan to help the stroke survivor regain their ability to swallow.
Rehabilitation plans for swallowing disorders typically include exercises to train the swallowing muscles in the mouth and throat to work together again. The patient may also need to learn new techniques to compensate for lost mobility, such as turning the head to one side to protect the airway against aspiration. Food and liquids may also need to be changed so the patient can safely eat or drink based on their ability to swallow.
While rehabilitation plans are designed to meet the stroke survivor’s individual needs, DeTota advises taking common precautions while swallowing, such as sitting up straight when eating or drinking, taking small bites or sips, eating or drinking slowly, and making sure that all the food is cleared from the mouth.