Swallowing is a complex motor skill that requires the coordination of a multitude of nerves and muscles. Individuals with neurological conditions such as cerebral palsy, dementia, cervical spine injury, or a stroke, may experience difficulty swallowing. Known as dysphagia, symptoms of swallowing difficulties can range from excess saliva production to choking while eating. Further complications such as aspiration pneumonia may also occur.
Like with any other weak or uncoordinated muscles, exercises may help to strengthen and build coordination of the muscles and nerves associated with swallowing. Speech and occupational therapists are specifically trained to asses swallow function, and will develop a treatment plan that may include exercises specifically aimed at improving the ability to swallow. Your therapist may also assign simple swallow strengthening exercises for dysphagia—like those below—for you to do at home. *Please undertake these exercises only at the recommendation and with the guidance of your treating therapist.
Purpose: To strengthen muscles and improve your ability to swallow
How to Perform: First, lie flat on your back and raise your head slightly off the ground. Have your head raised high enough so that your eyes are fixated on your toes. Hold this position for a few seconds and then place your head back down. Repeat this same movement a few more times. For best results, do this exercise three to six times throughout the day. Over time, you can increase the duration of the head lift and the number of repetitions.
Purpose: Builds swallowing muscle strength and control
How to Perform: Place multiple small pieces of paper on a towel in front of you. Next, place a straw in your mouth and suck on the straw, allowing the paper to get picked up by the tip of the straw. Keep sucking on the straw as you carry the straw over to a cup, and stop sucking to release the paper into the cup. You should aim to successfully place all of the pieces of paper into the cup. You can start out with just 3 to 5 pieces of paper and slowly increase to around 10.
Purpose: Improve the contact and coordination between the different muscles used while swallowing
How to Perform: While dry swallowing, squeeze all of the muscles associated with swallowing as hard as possible. Repeat this up to 10 times in a single session. You should do 3 sessions of this exercise per day to sufficiently strengthen your muscles.
Purpose: Improves your ability to swallow food
How to Perform: Take a deep breath and keep holding your breath as you place a small bite of food in your mouth and swallow. Then, cough to clear any remnants of saliva or food which may have gone down past your vocal cords. Lastly, exhale. During your first few attempts at the exercise, do not use food. Once you have sufficient practice with this exercise, you can try it with a tiny piece of food in your mouth.
Purpose: Improves your ability to swallow food and strengthens swallowing muscles
How to Perform: This exercise is basically the same as the previous but is a little more intense. This time, you should bear down while taking a deep breath and then swallow hard.
About NAPA Center
At NAPA Center, we take an individualized approach to therapy because we understand that each child is unique with very specific needs. We embrace differences with an understanding that individualized programs work better. For this reason, no two therapeutic programs are alike. If your child needs our services, we will work closely with you to select the best therapies for them, creating a customized program specific to your child’s needs and your family’s goals. Let your child’s journey begin today by contacting us to learn more.