Swallowing difficulties, or dysphagia, can affect as many as one in 17 people in their lifetime. In the past, speech therapists trying to help patients suffering from dysphagia often had a limited number of tools available to them.

This summer, Martin Memorial has begun to use a new technology called VitalStim Therapy to assist patients who have trouble swallowing. That can include patients who have had a stroke, side effects from head and neck radiation, traumatic head and neck cancer or tracheotomy. Dysphagia can also affect people with such diseases as Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Dysphagia is most common among the elderly.

“VitalStim is a therapy that goes beyond exercises and other traditional methods,” said Cindy Irish, lead speech pathologist at Martin Memorial. “Dysphagia can significantly affect a person’s life, so much so that a person may end up with a feeding tube because they are not able to take in the necessary nutrition or hydration.”

VitalStim, is a non-invasive therapy where electrodes are placed on specific areas in a person’s neck to stimulate the muscles used for swallowing. The electrodes allow a small amount of current to pass through and stimulate inactive or atrophied swallowing muscles. At the same time, staff therapists are instructing their patients in swallowing exercises to aid in the re-training of the muscles.

Treatment sessions can last up to an hour and are performed on an outpatient basis. Marked improvement can be seen in six to 20 sessions, though sometimes a difference can be seen in as few as three days.

A prescription from a doctor is required for VitalStim. Special training is required and Martin Memorial currently has certified speech pathologists for VitalStim on staff.

“VitalStim has provided outstanding outcomes for patients since it earned FDA approval in 2002,” Irish said. “It will help to improve the quality of life for many patients suffering from dysphagia.”