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Spotlight on swallowing: the reflex that keeps us going

14 March 2024

Today, we are grateful for our ability to swallow safely. On Wednesday 13 March, the speech pathology team at St John of God Mt Lawley Hospital will campaign to promote Swallowing Awareness Day (recognised nationally on 13 March).

Like breathing, swallowing is essential to everyday life. It is a basic reflex that we take for granted, that involves 26 muscles! Did you know that the average person swallows between 500-700 times a day? That’s around three times an hour during sleep, once per minute while awake and even more during meals.

As social beings, our lifestyles revolve around eating. We meet friends for brunch, have family dinners and meetings over coffee, all which involves… you guessed it… swallowing! So, what happens if this natural physiological reflex becomes impaired?

When someone has difficulty with swallowing (also known as dysphagia), it can be life threatening. One in 17 people will develop some form of dysphagia in their lifetime. Currently, more than one million Australians have difficulty swallowing. Dysphagia can affect anyone, at any age, for many different reasons, including but not limited to Parkinson’s disease, stroke and dementia.

Swallowing difficulty (dysphagia) is any problem with sucking, swallowing, drinking, chewing, eating, controlling saliva, taking medication, or protecting the lungs from food and drink 'going the wrong way'.

Severe swallowing complications can lead to death, while other swallowing complications can lead to poor nutrition, dehydration, health complications, and social isolation. Sometimes, the first sign of a swallowing problem is coughing, gagging or choking when eating and drinking.

If you, or someone you know, are experiencing symptoms of dysphagia speak to your GP, who can refer you to a Speech Pathologist.

Our speech pathologists assess and treat people with dysphagia, helping patients on the wards and in the community manage their swallowing difficulty and reduce the risk of related complications. Their expertise is vital in avoiding the potentially life threatening consequences including choking, dehydration, malnutrition, and pneumonia.

Despite being very common, swallowing disorders often go unnoticed. A lack of general awareness about swallowing disorders can mean many people don’t discuss their symptoms with a health professional.

Swallowing Awareness Day 2024 is an opportunity to bring attention to swallowing disorders and the role that our speech pathologists have. So please, take the next sip of your coffee, or bite of your sandwich with gratitude for your functional swallow and continue the conversation.

Read for more information about Speech Pathology services at St John of God Mt Lawley Hospital.

Image of Shelby Aylett Senior Speech Pathologist at Mt Lawley Hospital
Shelby Aylett - Senior Speech Pathologist

Shelby is a certified practicing Senior Speech Pathologist at St John of God Mt Lawley Hospital. She has been practicing as a Speech Pathologist since 2019 across the acute inpatient wards & outpatient settings at St John of God Midland Hospital & St John of God Mt Lawley Hospital. Shelby has a passion in the areas of diagnosis, management, and treatment of individuals experiencing an inability to communicate effectively or who have difficulties with feeding and swallowing. Shelby enjoys working with patients in the development and achievement of their swallow and communication goals. A particular area of interest for Shelby is Videofluroscopy Swallow Studies, a ‘moving x-ray of the swallow’. These instrumental swallow assessments assist with the diagnostic process and confirm or challenge the initial bedside assessment hypothesis, as well as aid with swallow rehabilitation.