Swallowing is a function many people take for granted, but for others it can be a painful and uncomfortable aspect of their everyday life.
One of the things that those with swallowing difficulties may be advised or supported to do is to try swallowing exercises to improve their ability to eat or drink effectively.
Which muscles control swallowing?
First, it’s important to know how swallowing works. The swallowing reflex is actually quite a complex one, which uses as many as 50 pairs of muscles to move food from your mouth through your throat and into the stomach.
People who have a weakness in these muscles, for example a weak tongue or an inhibited chewing response, my find themselves with swallowing difficulties.
How is swallowing function measured or evaluated?
People with swallowing difficulties or swallowing pain may require an evaluation or test to determine the severity of the problem. There are several tests and examinations that may be used, such as:
- Bedside swallowing evaluation or test – done by a Speech and Language Therapist (SLT), this involves swallowing some water, with the number of swallows recorded. You may also be required to chew and swallow a small piece of food in order for the SLT to examine how the muscles involved in chewing and swallowing are working.
- Barium swallow or videofluoroscopy – where you swallow pieces of food and liquid mixed with barium (a non-toxic liquid) which then shows up on x-rays to allow medical professionals to see where any swallowing problems exist
- Fibreoptic endoscopic evaluation of swallowing (FEES) – also known as nasoendoscopy, this involves a specialist passing an endoscope (small camera and light) through the nose and into the throat to check for problems.
How can swallowing exercises help?
Performing swallowing exercises can help to strengthen the muscles involved in the swallowing process, which in turn may help to improve the ability to swallow. They may also help with swallowing control and to aid coordination.
Important note: swallowing exercises should only be done on the advice of a medical professional.
Swallowing exercises using the throat and tongue muscles
Here are some common swallowing exercises that may be recommended.
Lay on a bed with your head and shoulders flat on the mattress. Lift your head forward to bring your chin to your chest, and look towards your feet. Hold the position for 60 seconds and repeat three times.
Swallow food or saliva with as much force as you can muster, pushing against the roof of your mouth with your tongue.
Hold your breath tightly and swallow twice. Release your breath by coughing and then swallow again.
Hold your voice box at the front with your fingers, and then swallow (you will feel the Adam’s apple move while you do this). Swallow again, but this time squeeze your throat muscles to hold the Adam’s apple up. Do this for at least three seconds to build strength.
How long does it take to build strength in the tongue and throat?
Progress made from swallowing exercises can vary widely from case to case. This is often due to the underlying reason for a person’s swallowing difficulties, as well as the severity of the problem.
Always consult a medical professional before starting any form of exercise relating to swallowing function.