10 Swallowing Exercises for Stroke Patients to Regain Function

Every year, hundreds of thousands of people around the world have a stroke, and many will experience communication problems as a result.

Swallowing exercises for stroke patients may help you overcome dysphagia, a post-stroke condition that makes it difficult to swallow.

Be sure to check with your Speech-Language Pathologist before starting new swallowing exercises before proceeding as a measure of safety.

The potential side effects of dysphagia are serious – such as choking or silent aspirations. Therefore, it’s critical to consult with your medical team before attempting anything new at home.

Regaining the Ability to Swallow After Stroke

Before beginning the swallowing exercises, it’s helpful to understand how it helps with recovery.

First, swallowing exercises help strengthen the muscles associated with swallowing and build coordination.

But more importantly, practicing these exercises regularly allows the brain to rewire itself and form new neural networks – a process known as neuroplasticity.

When you rewire the brain through these swallowing exercises, you address the root problem, which leads to long-term improvement.

High repetition is critical to stimulate neuroplasticity (i.e. “massed practice”), so it’s important to do as many repetitions as you can.

Swallowing Exercises for Stroke Patients

Below are some of the most effective swallowing exercises for stroke patients.

Ask your Speech-Language Pathologist if they’re safe for you before attempting them at home.

1. Tongue Push Ups

This exercise will help retrain your tongue, which is important for regaining the ability to swallow.

Start by sticking out your tongue as far as you can. Put a spoon on your tongue and push up against the spoon. Hold for a few seconds, and release. Repeat 5 times.

2. Tongue Push Downs

Try placing the spoon underneath your tongue and then push down on the spoon with your tongue. Repeat 5 times.

3. Tongue Slides

Start with your tongue at the top-front of your mouth right behind your teeth. Then slide your tongue backwards along the roof of your mouth as far as you can go. Then slide your tongue back to the starting position. Repeat 5 times.

4. Neck Strengthener

Lie flat on your back and raise your head as if you are trying to look at your toes. Try not to raise your shoulders while you do this. Then relax your head back down. Repeat 5 times.

You can increase the duration of the head lifts and number of repetitions to increase the challenge.

5. Straw Sucker

Place a few small pieces of paper over an uneven surface like a blanket or towel. Then, place a straw in your mouth and suck one of the pieces of paper to its tip.

Finally, keep sucking on the straw while keeping the piece of paper attached, as you bring it over a container. Finally, when you are over the container, stop sucking on the straw and let it fall into the container.

For each session, aim to place about 5-10 pieces of paper into the container.

6. Adam’s Apple Control

Some women don’t have Adam’s apples, so this exercise is mostly tailored to men or women with larger voice boxes.

Place your hand gently on your throat and try to swallow your saliva carefully. Notice that your Adam’s apple moves up and down.

Do this again, and try to keep your Adam’s apple elevated for a few seconds before releasing it back down. You can use your fingers to assist your Adam’s apple at first (known as passive exercise).

Repeat 5 times.

7. Effortful Swallow

This exercise is one of the most functional swallowing exercises for stroke patients because it directly involves swallowing.

First, attempt to swallow, and then try to squeeze all the muscles involved as hard as you can. Be sure to put safety first when you attempt this. Repeat 10 times.

8. Supraglottic Swallow

Take a deep breath and hold your breath as you swallow. Cough to clear any residues of saliva or food. During your first few attempts, do not use food.

As you regain strength and coordination in your swallowing muscles, ask your speech therapist if it’s safe for you to practice this exercise with small pieces of food in your mouth.

Make sure someone else is present in case you start choking. Also make sure they know the Heimlich maneuver in the event that you do choke.

9. Swallow Control

The purpose of this exercise is to improve airway protection when you swallow.

Open your mouth wide and exhale air from your lungs but do not allow any air to escape from your mouth.

If you do this correctly, your airways should remain closed. Since you will be exhaling against a closed throat, air should not be able to escape. Hold for 10 seconds.

Repeat 5 times.

10. Pretend Yawn

Pretend to yawn while holding your tongue back as far as you can. Hold for a few seconds, and release. Repeat 5 times.

Difficulty Swallowing After Stroke

These swallowing exercises for stroke patients are designed to retrain the brain and improve your control over the muscles that control swallowing.

It’s important to remember that every stroke is different, so be sure to work closely with a speech therapist to design a program that’s right for you.

With continuous exercise, the brain may begin to heal and rewire itself. As a result, your swallowing abilities may improve.

The more you practice, the greater chance for your recovery.

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