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Dysphagia patients experience the effects of water boarding

Written by Ed Steger, NFOSD president and a severe dysphagia sufferer for over six years.

Dr. Peter Belafsky, an NFOSD board member and current president of the Dysphagia Research Society (DRS) wrote a president’s letter to the DRS membership in June 2012. In that letter he likened the affects of severe dysphagia on the patient as being in a constant state of water boarding. The video in this article was published by Amnesty International. Be forewarned, it is short, yet graphic, and is not for everyone.

However, if you ever wondered why people with swallowing disorders cough and gag when drinking or eating, and want to better understand how they feel, then this video will help.

As explained to me by a seasoned speech language pathologist (thanks Brad) recently, one’s windpipe during the normal swallowing process is protected first by the epiglottis (which sits near the base of the tongue) and as a secondary and last resort, by one’s vocal cords. My dysphagia is due to a combination of life saving treatments which included surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. These treatments contributed to a poorly functioning epiglottis (among other issues). I let my vocal cords do a lot of airway protection when consuming liquids (95 plus percent of my diet is liquid). It takes significant concentration, effort, and energy to use this secondary protection. It also prohibits me from speaking while eating due to the real fear that I’ll aspirate. Aspiration can lead to pneumonia and is the intake of unwanted water, food, or other substances into the lungs. This brings us full circle to why patients with severe dysphagia have likened the affects of dysphagia to water boarding; unwanted liquids and foods enter the lungs.

The intent in writing this article and posting it on our website is to help those with loved ones and friends experiencing swallowing issues better understand why someone with a swallowing disorder is coughing while consuming nutrition and hydration and how they are feeling.