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Swallowing problems common among seniors

Family
Man struggles with painful swallowing.

Swallowing is so routine that most of us don’t even think about it.
But for some people, swallowing is painful or can be more difficult than normal. Known as dysphagia, it is an especially common diagnosis among seniors.
“Dysphagia can be part of the normal aging process,” says Dr. Ernie Gelb, an experienced family medicine and geriatrics physician who practices at Tidelands Health Family Medicine at Holmestown Road in Myrtle Beach. “But there are also a whole host of medical issues that can result in some form of dysphagia.”
Conditions that can cause dysphagia include a past stroke, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, Lou Gehrig’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and more. Certain pharmaceuticals can also cause the condition, especially if muscle weakness is a potential side effect.

Treatment

When Dr. Gelb sees patients who are having difficulty swallowing, his first step is to determine the presence of any underlying cause that may exist. Depending on his initial assessment, patients may be referred to a speech language pathologist, a gastroenterologist or an ear, nose and throat specialist.
A speech language pathologist will look at how a patient is swallowing and then, depending on the diagnosis, help the individual adopt strategies for swallowing more safely.

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An ENT may order an indirect or direct laryngoscopy. An indirect laryngoscopy is a simple examination done by the doctor using a small mirror and light to examine the patient’s throat. A direct laryngoscopy is completed under general anesthesia.
A gastroenterologist, meanwhile, may conduct an examination called an esophagogastroduodenoscopy in which a small camera attached to a long tube is inserted down the esophagus to the stomach to help determine the cause of the dysphagia.

Early detection is key

Early detection and treatment of dysphagia is important, Dr. Gelb says. It is a serious condition that can lead to other problems such aspiration (accidentally sucking food into your airway), which in turn can lead to pneumonia.
For patients with diabetes or other diseases that affect the musculoskeletal system, properly managing your condition and following through with any recommended physical therapy, occupational therapy or other treatments can help prevent dysphagia, Dr. Gelb says.
If you are having trouble swallowing, you should contact a qualified care provider right away, Dr. Gelb says. He or she can help determine the cause and refer you to a specialist if necessary.

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