MS and Trouble Swallowing

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a chronic, progressive condition that affects the central nervous system. As MS causes damage to the nerves, it can cause a disruption in how a person moves, thinks, and feels. One of the symptoms MS can cause is difficulty swallowing, which is referred to medically as dysphagia.

The normal swallowing process

There are several things that occur during a normal swallow reflex. When things are working properly, this happens without much thought. But when problems arise, it can be helpful to understand how the process normally functions. Experts have categorized the swallowing process into 3 phases:1

  • Oral phase – Food is chewed and combined with saliva to form a bolus. The tongue helps move the food around the mouth for chewing and moves the bolus to the back of the mouth.
  • Pharyngeal phase – The vocal folds close and the epiglottis covers the entrance to the lungs (larynx) to keep food and liquid out.
  • Esophageal phase – The bolus moves into the esophagus, the tube that connects the mouth to the stomach.

Symptoms of swallowing problems

Symptoms of dysphagia include:1,2

  • Being unable to swallow
  • Having food get stuck in your throat
  • Coughing while swallowing
  • A choking sensation

If an obstruction of food causes choking, immediate attention is required. Fast action can save the life of a person who is choking. Abdominal thrusts, also called the Heimlich Maneuver, can be done by another person or by yourself to force air up the windpipe and expel the lodged food or object.3

This or That

Have you ever experienced difficulty swallowing or had the feeling of choking?

How common is it among people with MS?

It’s difficult to give an exact estimate of how many people with MS experience dysphagia. As with many features of MS, each person experiences symptoms uniquely. One 2023 meta-analysis looked at data from 997 studies on dysphagia in people with MS. It found that 44.8 percent of people with MS reported swallowing problems.4

In our 5th Multiple Sclerosis In America survey, 24 percent of survey respondents noted they were currently experiencing trouble swallowing at the time of the questionnaire. Plus, 57 percent said they had experienced trouble swallowing at some point.

What you can do

Talk to your doctor if you’re having trouble swallowing. Your doctor needs to understand all your symptoms to give you the best approach for managing your symptoms. Your doctor may also refer you to a speech-language pathologist (SLP). Despite their title, SLPs can assess, diagnose, and treat swallowing disorders, along with treating speech and language disorders.5

Along with professional help, these steps can help reduce your risk of choking:2

  • Eat slowly
  • Sit up straight while eating and drinking
  • Thoroughly chew your food

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