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Swallowing and Parkinson’s Disease

Quick Facts:

  • Swallowing difficulty can occur at any stage of Parkinson disease (PD), even the early stages
  • The leading cause of death in PD is aspiration pneumonia due to swallowing disorders.
  • Evaluation and treatment of swallowing disorders are performed by a speech language pathologist
  • Swallowing disorders are treatable

Difficulty swallowing, or dysphagia, can happen at any stage of Parkinson disease and can be localized to the mouth, throat, and esophagus. Signs and symptoms can range from mild to severe and may include:

  • Drooling
  • Difficulty swallowing certain foods or liquids
  • Coughing or throat clearing during or after eating/drinking
  • Needing to swallowing multiple times per bite or sip
  • Feeling as if food is getting stuck
  • Frequent heartburn/reflux

As the disease progresses, swallowing can become severely compromised and food/liquid can get into the lungs, causing aspiration pneumonia. Aspiration pneumonia is the leading cause of death in Parkinson’s. There is also a risk for severe choking, when food lodges in the airway and prevents the ability to breathe.

It is important to take note of any changes to swallowing function, because there is opportunity to intervene early and preserve both health and quality of life. Swallowing disorders are managed by the medical team with a speech-language pathologist and physician. Evaluation typically involves an interview, a physical examination of the head and neck, trials with food/liquid and if indicated, an instrumented examination, either with a moving x-ray, called videofluoroscopy (also known as a modified barium swallow study) or by visualizing the throat with a scope (called endoscopy). New technologies are being developed that may be able to detect Parkinson’s-related changes to swallowing function even before someone begins to notice swallowing difficulty. One example is high-resolution manometry, a technique that measures pressures generated in the throat during swallowing (see figure below).

Images from a videofluoroscopic (x-ray) swallow study (left) and high-resolution manometry (swallowing pressures) study (right) from a healthy individual (top) and a person with Parkinson disease (bottom). In the person with PD, note airway invasion of the swallowed contrast (white arrow), reduced opening of the upper esophagus (black arrow), and need for multiple swallows (magenta arrow).

Treatment of swallowing disorders is specific to the nature of the swallowing problem, but can involve strategies to help food or liquid go down safely (swallowing hard, holding your breath while swallowing, tucking the chin while swallowing), diet changes (thickening liquids, making foods softer), exercises, or a combination of these. In some cases, alternatives to oral feeding, such as a feeding tube, are indicated. However, just because you have a swallowing problem, it does not mean that you will need a feeding tube.

Because Parkinson disease is progressive, swallowing abilities can change over time, underscoring the need for early intervention and frequent follow-up. It may be beneficial for you and your healthcare team to have a “baseline” swallowing study as a comparison for later in the disease progression. Sometimes the signs of a swallowing disorder can be subtle, so it is important to be vigilant. Below are some signs that you may have a swallowing problem:

  • You have recently lost weight without trying
  • You tend to avoid drinking liquids
  • You have heartburn or a sore throat
  • You tend to drool
  • You get the sensation of food stuck in your throat
  • You cough, choke, or clear your throat during or after meals
  • You have trouble keeping food or liquid in your mouth
  • You have trouble moving food to the back of your mouth
  • You have difficulty swallowing pills
  • You have lost your appetite
  • It takes you a long time to eat a meal
  • Sometimes you have a fever for no apparent reason

If you think you have difficulty swallowing, ask your physician to refer you to a speech-language pathologist for a swallowing evaluation.  

References and Resources:

  • Beyer, et al. Causes of death in a community-based study of Parkinson’s disease. Acta Neurol Scand. 2001;103(1):7-11. PubMed link
  • Ciucci, et al. Early identification and treatment of communication and swallowing deficits in Parkinson disease. Semin Speech Lang. 2013;34(3):185-202. PubMed link
  • D’Amelio et al. Long-term survival of Parkinson’s disease: A population-based study. J Neurol. 2006;253(1):33-7. PubMed link
  • Jones & Ciuicci. Multimodal swallowing evaluation with high-resolution manometry reveals subtle swallowing changes in early and mid-stage Parkinson disease. J Parkinsons Dis. 2016;6(1):197-208. PubMed link
  • Michou & Hamdy. Dysphagia in Parkinson’s disease: A therapeutic challenge? Expert Review of Neurotherapeutics. 2010;10:875-8. PubMed link
  • Pflug, et al. Critical dysphagia is common in Parkinson disease and occurs even in early stages: A prospective cohort study. Dysphagia. 2018; 33(1):41-50. PubMed link
  • Plowman-Prine, et al. The relationship between quality of life and swallowing in Parkinson’s disease. Mov Disord. 2009;24:1352-1358. PubMed link

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The Shaking Man (A Prose Poem), Part 1

The Shaking Man (A Prose Poem), Part 1

By Reinfred Addo

(For Terri Beamer Shelor and Karen Gaines–incredible instructors, mentors, and speech-language pathologists)

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Caregiver’s Guide to Dysphagia in Dementia

Byline: Rinki Varindani Desai is an ASHA-certified medical speech-language pathologist and BIAA-certified brain injury specialist, specializing in the rehabilitation of cognitive-linguistic and swallowing disorders in adults. She is the founder and admin of the Medical SLP Forum, co-author of the mobile app Dysphagia Therapy and co-founder of Dysphagia Grand Rounds. Rinki currently serves on ASHA’s SIG 13 Editorial Committee as Associate Editor of Perspectives, on the Dysphagia Research Society’s Website, Communications, and PublicRelations Committee and has been selected to participate in ASHA’s Leadership Development Program 2017-2018. She has presented at national and international conferences on topics related to adult dysphagia and written numerous articles for leading SLP blogs and magazines. Originally from Mumbai, India; Rinki currently practices in Rochester, New York as Healthpro Rehabilitation’s SLP Team Leader for the Western NY region. You can follow her Medical SLP updates on Facebook and Twitter or reach out to her at

Dementia and Dysphagia

Dementia is not one specific disease. It is a broad term that describes a wide range of symptoms associated with a decline in memory, communication, and other thinking skills; severe enough to reduce a person’s ability to perform everyday activities (Alzheimer’s Association). continue reading →

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How do you die of Parkinson’s Disease?

The NY Times has a periodic “Ask Well” series that runs a few times monthly and health experts (we assume) answer reader’s questions. The question of how people die from Parkinson’s disease was in today’s newspaper and resonated with me. Years ago, I asked a similar question of my surgeon, but for head and neck cancer. The most common cause of death for someone with Parkinson’s disease is pneumonia. The cause of pneumonia is aspirating foods and liquids into the lungs due to a compromised swallow.

Here’s a link to the story:

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Persons with Parkinson’s Disease and Dysphagia


By: Mary Spremulli, CCC-SLP. Ms. Spremulli is the owner of Voice Aerobics, LLC, a Speech-Language Pathology Private Practice, located in SW Florida. She holds a speech-language pathology license in Florida, Ohio, and North Carolina, and a nursing license in Florida. She is a faculty member of Parkinson Place in Sarasota, FL, and a member of the Education Committee of the World Parkinson Program. Ms. Spremulli has been a Clinical Consultant with Passy-Muir, Inc. for over 20 years providing education to professionals and patients, and she has published articles on the topic of patient education. Since 2013, Ms. Spremulli has hosted a monthly podcast, focusing on topics related to living well with Parkinson’s and other neurological diseases.

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