Chances are, you take it for granted, downing everything from peanut butter milkshakes to 8-ounce Porterhouse steaks without a second thought. But swallowing, that vital exercise essential to enjoyable eating, can be compromised. Some 15 million Americans suffer from swallowing disorders that may be the result of a head injury, stroke, aging, diet, or possibly even medications.
Laddie Erbele, Speech therapist
In general, the American diet is basically soft. "We have 30 to 40 swallowing muscles in the neck, and we should be grinding nuts and dried meats and grains to keep them strong," says Community Hospital occupational therapist Joy Colangelo. "If people do that, they tend not to develop swallowing disorders."
Most of the people seeking swallowing rehabilitation have suffered a stroke. The therapy in this case may include exercises to help strengthen the swallowing muscles and the introduction of a diet easily swallowed.
After about three weeks of therapy, most swallowing muscles will return to use. That helps the patient avoid a lot of medical procedures.
In addition to muscle strength, body positioning when we eat is very important to the way we swallow. Case in point: Remember the old mantra about eating a square meal? Well, it was developed at West Point, says Colangelo, and it's not about the food we eat but rather about how the body should be positioned at square angles when we do eat. That's the reason we shouldn't be standing or lying down when we eat.