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Watching Out for Multiple Sclerosis-Related Swallowing Problems

Swallowing isn't as simple as it seems — in fact, the process involves about 30 muscles in your mouth and throat and eight of your cranial nerves. So, as you can imagine, Multiple Sclerosis (MS) lesions can interfere at any point in the process, from when you put food in your mouth to when it arrives in your stomach.

When the nerve impulses that make swallowing possible aren't working correctly, you develop dysphagia, or difficulty swallowing. When this happens, food can pass into your airway and lungs, causing you to choke and cough. Over time, particles of food that remain in the lungs can cause aspiration pneumonia. This, like all types of pneumonia, can be serious, debilitating, and potentially dangerous. Fortunately, most people with MS won't develop this kind of serious problem. But, if you notice that your eating has become much slower, you have difficulty swallowing different kinds of food (liquids, for example, may give you more problems than solids, or certain kinds of solid foods may cause you more difficulty than others), or you find yourself coughing a lot during or after meals, ask your doctor for a referral to a Speech/Language Pathologist (S/LP).

The S/LP will evaluate your swallow with a test called a videofluoroscopy (also referred to as a modified barium swallow), that tracks via X-ray a bolus of food as it travels from your mouth down to your stomach. Depending on the type of problem you're having, the S/LP can teach you safe swallowing exercises that improve muscle coordination during swallowing and recommend modifications in the way you eat or the consistency of the foods you eat.

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