What is Stroke Dysphagia?

Allison Boelcke

Dysphagia is a condition in which a person has trouble swallowing. The condition may have a variety of causes, but when it is brought on by a stroke, it is referred to as stroke dysphagia. A stroke is an incident in which the blood supply to the brain is cut off, making the brain deprived of oxygen. People who have experienced strokes may also have permanent neurological impairments from the lack of oxygen to the brain, which may contribute to difficulty swallowing.

A diagram of an ischemic stroke and a hemorrhagic stroke.
A diagram of an ischemic stroke and a hemorrhagic stroke.

One of the most common causes of stroke and the accompanying stroke dysphagia is blocked or tapered arteries leading to the brain. An artery is a type of blood vessel that distributes blood from the heart to the brain and other areas of the body. If an artery to the brain is not as wide as it should be, it may prevent enough oxygen from reaching the brain and result in a stroke. Artery blockages may be the result of high levels of cholesterol built up in the blood that form clots, which may block the arteries. Blood clots leading to artery blockages may also be the result of an abnormal heart beat that can cause excess amounts of blood in the heart and cause clots that move to through the arteries, but this is not as common.

The human brain, including blood vessels that can be involved in a stroke.
The human brain, including blood vessels that can be involved in a stroke.

Stroke dysphagia may also be brought on by a hemorrhage. A hemorrhage is a medical term that refers to sudden excessive or uncontrollable bleeding. Hemorrhages in the brain are typically the result of a burst blood vessel. Once blood from the burst vessel comes into contact with the brain, it starts to severely damage the brain tissue cells and can prevent the person from performing basic functions, including swallowing.

The symptoms of stroke dysphagia may vary depending on the severity of the condition. Some people may experience slight pain while swallowing or feel like food is getting caught in the throat or chest. More serious symptoms of the condition include physically being unable to swallow, rather than just having difficulty, as well as regurgitating food if it does get swallowed initially.

Some cases of stroke dysphagia may be able to be treated and made less severe. Neurologists who specialize in stroke rehabilitation may be able to assist patients on exercises to strengthen the throat and nerves that control swallowing reflexes. They may also be able to teach patients ways to place food or liquid into their mouths to make swallowing easier.

People with stroke dysphagia may experience extreme pain when swallowing or feel like they no longer have the ability to swallow.
People with stroke dysphagia may experience extreme pain when swallowing or feel like they no longer have the ability to swallow.

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