Swallowing difficulties are always frightening and can be deadly. The medical term for loss of swallowing function is dysphagia, and approximately 15 million people in the U.S. are affected by the condition. Medical professionals consider dysphagia a critical health concern among our aging population.
Among the most popular therapies approved by physicians for treating dysphagia is e-Stim therapy. The most well-known of the e-Stims is the VitalStim® Therapy System, introduced in 2008 as a safe, effective treatment to help improve swallowing function.
Symptoms to Watch For in Older Adults
Dysphagia can occur as the result of a stroke or as a side effect of radiation treatments to treat cancers in the throat, esophagus or thyroid. According to the peer-reviewed journal, Gastroenterology & Hepatology, more than 50% of elderly people living in assisted living facilities and nursing homes have dysphagia, and up to 80% of people with Alzheimer’s disease or Parkinson’s have some level of it.
In addition to the conditions mentioned, symptoms you may notice in yourself or someone else that may be signs of dysphagia include:
- Difficulty eating or even avoiding eating altogether
- A feeling that something is stuck in the throat
- Voice developing an unexplained raspy or hoarse quality
- Excessive “wet” coughing, excess phlegm, excessive throat clearing
- Recurring respiratory infections
Being unable to swallow is more than an inconvenience; it can have devastating health consequences. Patients who no longer have the ability to swallow often end up having to use a feeding tube and can only take in special liquid nutrition.
Among the other health impacts of dysphagia are:
- Respiratory complications
- Hospital readmissions
- Increased need for institutionalized care
- Increased morbidity and mortality
How VitalStim Therapy Can Help
VitalStim Therapy has been successful in helping people who thought they’d never be able to eat by mouth again. It uses Neuromuscular Electrical Stimulation (NMES) to stimulate motor nerves and muscles responsible for swallowing. The electrical currents produced by the machine help strengthen the muscles involved in the swallowing mechanism in order to rehabilitate the swallow. Think of the treatments as a way to “re-educate” swallowing muscle function to the point where a patient can eat normally or at least consume soft foods or liquids without choking.
The treatments are typically performed by a specially trained speech language pathologist certified in VitalStim Therapy, and is often done in conjunction with other speech therapies.
What to Expect From a VitalStim Therapy Session
Most important, the treatment is painless and noninvasive. Because the therapy involves nerve stimulation, the patient is meant to feel a sensation similar to contracting, for example, an arm muscle. The therapy begins with the speech language pathologist placing a set of electrodes on the front of the neck, and then setting the machine to administer a carefully measured electrical current to targeted nerves. The small electrical current stimulates the nerve, which results in a muscle contraction that rehabilitates the swallowing function. By repeating the process, along with following a set of exercises, the patient’s swallow muscles essentially “relearn” what it takes to swallow independently without the aid of the device.
Typically, a patient will receive VitalStim Therapy 3 to 5 days a week, with each visit lasting 60 minutes. The usual duration for therapy is one month. VitalStim Therapy is by prescription only, so you’ll need to consult your primary care physician or the doctor in charge of your condition before you can be evaluated or receive treatment.
Often, VitalStim Therapy is done in conjunction with other swallow therapies. These might include tongue strengthening exercises, effortful swallowing exercises, jaw thrust exercises and lip range of motion exercises, among many other therapies.
Learn More About Skilled Nursing Care and Our Swallowing Therapies
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