With my experience over the years with swallowing issues, I’ll go over everything you need to know about how radiation therapy might create swallowing difficulties in this article.
And after you finish reading, you will know how to avoid them almost completely.
Swallowing problems, also called dysphagia, happen when radiation therapy damages the cells in the throat and esophagus. This damage can make it difficult or painful to swallow.
As we all know, radiation therapy is a standard cancer treatment. It is also be used to treat other conditions such as enlarged thyroid gland, Graves’ disease, and hyperthyroidism.
It is often given as a series of treatments over several weeks. Unfortunately, radiation therapy can also cause side effects such as fatigue, skin problems, and nausea. Swallowing problems are another common side effect of radiation therapy.
Swallowing Problems Can Make It Hard to Eat and Drink
Many people may feel like food is sticking in their throat or chest.
You can also have difficulty swallowing medications. Weight loss and dehydration can also result from eating issues. There are many things you can do to manage swallowing problems.
6 Ways That Can Help You Stay Hydrated and Nourished
There is good news, though. You can take steps to prevent swallowing problems or lessen their impact. Here are some tips:
- Drink plenty of fluids, especially water
- Take small sips of fluid and chew food slowly
- Avoid drinking alcohol or caffeine because they can worsen symptoms
- Eat soft foods that are easy to chew and swallow
- If you have pain when swallowing, take over-the-counter pain medications such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen
- If you have difficulty swallowing, you may need to see a speech therapist or swallow therapist. They can help you learn how to eat and drink without pain.
What You Need to Know About Swallowing
When you want to swallow, many muscles and nerves work together. For example, the swallowing muscles in the back of your throat, called the pharynx, push food or drink down your esophagus into your stomach.
At the same time, nerves tell your brain how to chew and swallow properly.
Typically, these muscles and nerves work together smoothly to move food and drink from your mouth to your stomach.
But radiation therapy can damage these muscles and nerves, making them difficult or impossible to swallow. This is called dysphagia.
Dysphagia can cause problems such as:
- Some food or drink getting stuck in your throat
- The inability to eat enough to maintain a healthy weight
How to Manage Dysphagia
There is most likely no single best strategy to control dysphagia. Most times what works for one person may not work for another. You and your health care providers will have to figure out what works best for you.
Some ways to manage dysphagia include:
- Eating softer, easier-to-chew and swallow meals
- Drinking thick liquids or beverages with added protein or fiber
- Feeding yourself small, frequent meals throughout the day
- Positioning yourself carefully when eating or drinking
- Carrying a water bottle with you and sipping fluids often
- Avoiding straws and carbonated drinks
Exercising your swallowing muscles
If you have dysphagia, it is crucial to see a speech therapist. A speech therapist can help you:
- Learn new ways to eat and drink
- Exercise your swallowing muscles
- Make a plan for how often to eat and drink during the day
- Choose the right foods and liquids to swallow
- Avoid choking and aspirating (food or liquid going into your lungs)
- When to Call Your Health Care Provider
If you find out any one of these symptoms or signs below, don’t hesitate to get in touch with your health care provider:
- When You are drooling or have trouble controlling your saliva.
- See your doctor when you are losing weight without trying to.
- When you feel like food is stuck in your throat or chest.
- You are coughing up blood.
- Whenever you are having trouble breathing.
- When you are choking or gagging whenever you eat or drink.
- When you are losing your appetite.
- When you are feeling weak and tired.
- When you have nausea or are vomiting.
How to Care for Yourself at Home Manage Dysphagia
Here are some tips that may help you :
- Talk to a speech therapist about the best position for your head, neck, and body when eating or drinking.
- It’s advisable to sit straight and lean forward slightly when eating or drinking. This may help prevent food or liquid from going down the wrong way.
- Avoid lying down right after you eat or drink. Instead, wait at least 20-30 minutes before lying down.
- Take small bites and chew your food well.
- Drink plenty of fluids, especially water.
- If you have trouble swallowing thick liquids or foods, try using a straw.
- Avoid carbonated drinking drinks and sucking on ice chips.
- When you feel weak and tired, take a break from eating and drinking. Eat and drink only when you feel stronger.
- If you have trouble swallowing, try to eat and drink in a calm environment with few distractions.
- If you feel unusually stressed or anxious, talk to your health care provider about ways to manage your feelings. Stress can make dysphagia worse.
- It will be a good practice to keep a food diary to track what foods and liquids are most accessible for you to swallow.
- If you are having trouble keeping meals down, seek help from your health care provider.
Maintaining a healthy weight. Too little or too much weight can be harmful in people with dysphagia.
- When you are having trouble speaking, consult your health care provider immediately to help you with ways to communicate again
- If you aspirate (food or liquid going into your lungs), call your healthcare team. Aspiration can result in pneumonia, a severe lung infection.
What You Should Know Concerning Normal Swallowing
Most of us rarely consider how we swallow until we have a problem. Swallowing is a complex procedure that requires the cooperation of many different muscles.
Food or liquid moves from your mouth through your pharynx (throat) and esophagus into your stomach when you swallow. Your pharynx is a hollow tube about 4-5 inches long that starts behind your nose and goes down to your Adam’s apple level.
Your esophagus is a hollow tube about 10 inches long that begins at the lower end of your pharynx and ends at the upper part of your stomach.
The Three Phases of Swallowing
The first phase, called the oral preparatory phase, is when you position the food in your mouth for swallowing. This is done by using your tongue to move the food to the back of your mouth.
Second phase is called the pharyngeal phase, is when you push the food or liquid from your mouth through your pharynx and into your esophagus.
The muscles in your pharynx contract to close off your airway so that food doesn’t enter it. At the same time, the muscles in your esophagus contract to push the food or liquid down into your stomach.
The last phase which of cause is the third phase is called the esophageal phase, is when the muscles in your esophagus continue to contract to help push the food or liquid into your stomach.
The Effects of Cancer and Radiation Therapy on Swallowing
Cancer and radiation therapy can have a profound effect on swallowing function. Swallowing is a complex procedure that requires the cooperation of many different muscles and nerves.
Cancer and radiation therapy can affect any or all of these structures, leading to problems with swallowing.
Swallowing problems are common in people with cancer. Up to 40 to 60% of people with cancer may experience difficulty swallowing. Radiation therapy is a standard cancer treatment, and it can also cause problems with swallowing. Swallowing difficulties may also persist long after cancer and radiation therapy are finished.
There are various types of swallowing disorders. Some people have trouble getting food or liquid down their throats. Others may choke or gag on food or beverage.
Finally, some people may drool or spit food or liquid out of their mouths. Still, others may not be able to eat or drink at all.
Swallowing problems can make it challenging to get the nutrients needed to fight cancer. They can also lead to dehydration, weight loss, and malnutrition. In some cases, swallowing problems can be life-threatening.
There are different ways to handle swallowing problems. Some people may need to change the way they eat or drink. Others may need speech therapy, occupational therapy, or physical therapy. In some cases, they may even require surgery.
However visit your health care provider for proper diagnostic, before considering to take further steps.