In this article we address some of the misconceptions that surround swallowing difficulties and the conditions that cause them, as well as important statistics around dysphagia.

There are many possible causes of dysphagia

Swallowing problems can occur as a result of a wide variety of conditions. Frequently, dysphagia is associated with the following:

• Stroke
• Head/neck cancer
• Progressive neurological diseases, including Parkinson’s Disease, Dementia and Multiple Sclerosis
• Brain injury
• Brain or central nervous system cancer
• Respiratory conditions (such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or post polio syndromes)
• Post cervical spinal surgery
• Developmental disorder (carried on into adulthood)

To sum up, dysphagia can be caused by neurological, physical or respiratory conditions – and it’s worth noting that it can also be caused by psychological disorders.

The connection between stroke and dysphagia

1 out of every 500 people in the UK are affected by stroke, with more than 40% of those people going on to have dysphagia in the aftermath.

Some clinical studies show an even higher trend, with evidence of dysphagia in over 70% of stroke patients.

There are correlations between stroke deaths and dysphagia

Only 10% of stroke related deaths are due to neurological problems, while 30% are caused by pneumonia. Aspiration pneumonia, caused by inhaling food (rather than swallowing it correctly), is common in undiagnosed or untreated cases of dysphagia.

With 67% of patient pneumonia occurring within 48 hours of admission after a stroke, the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists (RCSLT) believe this is ‘invariably associated with swallowing problems.’

Other conditions have strong correlations too

Research has found that 68% of people with dementia, who are in homes for the aged, have dysphagia.

Also, of people diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), 27% have dysphagia.

 This goes to show that swallowing difficulties can be caused by a multitude of conditions – while it may be more common as a result of certain conditions, such as strokes or dementia, it is by no means exclusive to people with those conditions.

Dysphagia is not exclusively a condition of the elderly

There’s a misconception that dysphagia, and many of the conditions that can cause it, are specific to the elderly. However, this is not the case.

For example 99% of children with severe cerebral palsy have dysphagia – and the majority will continue to deal with swallowing difficulties throughout their life.

Considering the previously mentioned statistics surrounding stroke and dysphagia, many might find it surprising to discover that 1 in 5 stroke victims are now below the age of 55. This is a trend that appears to be rising. This will, in turn, lead to rising numbers of people under 55 with dysphagia.

Dysphagia can have many knock on effects

While dysphagia is a condition in its own right, people with swallowing or chewing problems can also struggle with secondary effects. We’ve already mentioned aspiration pneumonia, but there are other concerns for people with dysphagia:

• Poor nutrition
• Dehydration
• Decreased enjoyment of eating
• Embarrassment in social situations involving eating, eg. family meals


There are people that can help

If you have swallowing problems, then a Speech and Language Therapist (SLT) with the appropriate training should be able to help you. The NHS has SLTs on staff who should be able to help – for example, by teaching you new swallowing techniques.

People are also often surprised to find out that there is food specially created for people who have difficulty swallowing.

At Wiltshire Farm Foods, we created our range of Soft and Puréed meals to help people with dysphagia. Find out about the extensive selection of meals we’ve created, and see how you can enjoy your favourite foods even with swallowing difficulties.


Dysphagia manual by the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists: