Scripps Offers New Treatment for Swallowing Difficulties

Help for patients with difficulty eating

Food is part of one’s daily living. However, because of stroke and other illnesses that affect swallowing, many people can no longer enjoy eating a simple meal. A new technology available at the Scripps Center for Voice & Swallowing is bringing patients who have difficulty with swallowing back to the table.

Recently approved by the Food and Drug Administration, VitalStim is a non-invasive, painless treatment that is enabling patients suffering from dysphasia, or difficulty swallowing, to eat and drink again. Dysphagia affects people of all ages. Patients develop dysphagia as the result of head injuries, stroke, Parkinson’s disease, spinal muscle atrophy, among other conditions.

“This new form of therapy is 97 percent successful in improving or restoring swallowing function,” according to Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla speech pathologist Jan Speirs.

During treatment, the patient receives mild external stimulation from the hand-held device that has three small electrodes attached to the patient’s neck. The patient feels a tingling that changes to a pulling sensation as the treatment progresses.

“We actually hook people up while they are swallowing,” Speirs explained. “The electrodes tell the muscle what to do and then the machine contracts for them.”

Forty-five percent of patients who underwent electrical stimulation therapy could swallow normally during the first week of treatment, says Speirs. Currently traditional methods to treat dysphagia provide limited degrees of success. These include conventional speech therapy, patient education, swallowing maneuvers, and diet modification such as cutting food into small mouthfuls or pureeing food to make it pass more easily down the throat.