15 Million Americans Suffer From Swallowing Disorders

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Dysphagia, a term encompassing a variety of swallowing disorders, affects an estimated 15 million Americans, with one million new diagnoses every year. Every year 60,000 deaths are reported from complications of dysphagia.

What’s it like when you can’t swallow? The problem is more common than we think.

Dysphagia, a term encompassing a variety of swallowing disorders, affects an estimated 15 million Americans, with one million new diagnoses every year.

More people die annually from complications associated with swallowing dysfunctions than from liver and kidney disease and HIV-AIDS combined.

Eating becomes a challenge. When weak muscles in the throat cannot move all of the food to the stomach, it can fall or be pulled into the windpipe which could lead to a lung infection, possibly pneumonia. Many patients with dysphagia end up with a feeding tube placed directly into their stomach because they are not able to take in any kind of nutrition or fluids on their own.

Dysphagia can be found in people of all ages. About 75 percent of stroke patients and 90 percent of people with neurological illnesses like Parkinson's Disease and ALS experience dysphagia at some point. Patients with traumatic brain injury and many who undergo radiation as a result of head and neck cancers also can be at risk. Some children are born with the condition.

Traditional methods to treat dysphagia involve thermal stimulation, speech therapy and oral exercises, swallowing maneuvers and diet modifications. These treatments may require a person to tilt his or her chin down while swallowing, eat only pureed foods or drink only thickened liquids.

Today, more and more people are finding relief from a breakthrough medical treatment that uses electrical impulses to retrain throat muscles. Called VitalStim® Therapy, the patented device allows a small current to pass through external electrodes on the neck in order to re-educate the muscles around the throat to restore swallowing. With repeated therapy, many patients are freed from the need for feeding tubes.

After a referral by a physician, a medical practitioner certified in the therapy administers the treatment – usually three to five times per week, for as much as an hour at a time. The treatments are not painful. Patients may feel a tingling or pulling sensation. Some patients see dramatic improvement after just four or five sessions.

Local speech pathologists around the country report they often accomplish more with

VitalStim® Therapy than with traditional treatments – and in a much shorter time. Sue Creekmore, Director of Clinical Services at HealthSouth Rehab Hospital in Huntsville, AL, says that in the past, brain-stem stroke patients typically were among the hardest to treat – usually unable to eat anything orally for 3-6 months post-stroke.

Electrical stimulation treatment has reduced that time to 2-3 weeks – a 75-95% reduction in recovery time. In fact, when treatment is begun within about 5-7 days post-stroke, most patients start consuming a normal diet by the end of 8-10 treatment sessions.

Developed by Marcy Freed, a veteran Speech-Language Pathologist and researcher in swallowing disorders, VitalStim® Therapy is the only electrical stimulation device cleared by the FDA for the treatment of dysphagia.

According to Freed, “The average person swallows approximately 2,000 times a day. If the swallowing muscles are not used, they begin to atrophy within 72 hours. Once they stop working, they need something to jump start them again."

As more and more attention is paid to the despair of dysphagia, VitalStim® Therapy will become the standard of care.

VitalStim® Therapy is available at HealthSouth hospitals nationwide. For more information, call 1-888-REHAB-4-U or visit http://www.healthsouth.com.

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