Why Do Parkinson’s Patients Have Swallowing Difficulty?

Parkinson’s disease is often known for its movement-related symptoms. However, the disease also presents a range of lesser-known challenges. One such challenge is swallowing difficulty. Many patients experience this symptom, and it disrupts their daily eating and drinking routines.

This article explores the reasons behind this often-overlooked aspect of the disease and its impact on patients’ lives.

Why do Parkinson's patients have swallowing difficulty?

Parkinson’s disease is a neurological disorder that primarily affects movement. The most common symptoms include tremors, muscle rigidity, and bradykinesia (slowness of movement). While these symptoms can have a significant impact on mobility and coordination, there are other lesser-known problems that also cause discomfort in a patient’s daily life. One such problem is swallowing difficulty, a condition that presents challenges in eating and drinking and can greatly affect overall well-being.

Why do Parkinson’s patients have swallowing difficulty?

Individuals with Parkinson’s disease frequently face challenges in swallowing, a condition medically termed dysphagia. This difficulty is not just a physical issue; it’s a complex symptom resulting from the neurological effects of the disease.

Two key factors contribute to this condition:

The role of the brain and muscles

Swallowing is a highly coordinated activity that involves a complex interaction between various muscles in the mouth, throat, and esophagus. Under normal circumstances, swallowing is an automatic process, seamlessly integrated into daily activities like eating and drinking. The brain plays a crucial role in this process. It sends precise signals to the muscles involved, coordinating their actions to ensure smooth passage of food from the mouth to the stomach.

In Parkinson’s disease, the neurological impairments that disrupt limb movement extend to the muscles responsible for swallowing. The brain’s ability to effectively communicate with these muscles is compromised. This disruption leads to impaired coordination and timing during the swallowing process. Muscles may not contract and relax in the synchronized manner they typically would. This makes it difficult to move food efficiently and safely from the mouth through the throat and into the esophagus.

The impact of muscle rigidity and tremors

Muscle rigidity and tremors are among the most common symptoms experienced by Parkinson’s patients. In cases of rigidity, the muscles become stiff and resistant to movement. This stiffness can affect various parts of the body, including those involved in the swallowing process.

Tremors, on the other hand, can cause involuntary shaking. They do not affect just the hands but also other areas such as the head and feet. These tremors can interfere with the precise and coordinated muscle movements that are essential for safe swallowing.

Both rigidity and tremors significantly complicate the process of swallowing. When the muscles that move the tongue become stiffer, it becomes more challenging to maneuver food around the mouth effectively. This difficulty is exacerbated when the jaw also experiences reduced movement, making chewing and the initial stages of swallowing more arduous.

Furthermore, the muscles responsible for guiding food down the throat may also become stiff in Parkinson’s disease. This stiffness can create a sensation of food being lodged in the throat, adding to the discomfort and difficulty swallowing.

Additionally, tremors can disrupt the delicate balance required for these muscles to function smoothly. It further complicates the swallowing process. Specifically, tremors can cause unpredictable movements in the jaw and tongue, which are crucial for the initial stages of swallowing. This involuntary shaking can lead to difficulties in forming a proper bolus (ball of food) or in initiating the swallowing reflex, increasing the risk of choking or aspiration.

The risks associated with swallowing difficulty

Swallowing difficulty in Parkinson’s disease is not just about discomfort; it poses significant health risks. The most concerning risk is aspiration. It occurs when food or liquid enters the airway and lungs. This potentially leads to pneumonia.

Chronic aspiration can cause long-term lung damage and respiratory complications. It’s also important to note that repeated episodes of aspiration significantly increase the risk of serious infections and can severely impact the overall health of Parkinson’s patients.

Swallowing difficulty can also lead to malnutrition and dehydration. Patients may find eating so challenging and unpleasant that they avoid it. This leads to inadequate nutritional intake and weight loss.

Managing swallowing difficulty in Parkinson’s disease

Addressing dysphagia in Parkinson’s requires a comprehensive approach involving a team of healthcare professionals. Speech and language therapists play a crucial role in this process, providing specialized exercises and techniques aimed at strengthening the muscles involved in swallowing and improving coordination.

One effective method used by therapists is the Lee Silverman Voice Treatment (LSVT). Originally developed for enhancing speech, LSVT has also proven effective in managing swallowing difficulties. This therapy focuses on exercises that target the muscles of the throat and mouth, helping to improve their strength and control. These improvements can significantly minimize the risk of aspiration, making eating and drinking safer and more comfortable for patients.

Dietary modifications are another key aspect of managing dysphagia. Incorporating softer, easier-to-swallow foods and thickened liquids can greatly reduce the risks of choking and aspiration. Additionally, adopting mindful eating practices, such as eating slowly and in a relaxed environment, can further aid in managing swallowing difficulties. These approaches enhance the overall eating experience for individuals with Parkinson’s disease.


Understanding and addressing the swallowing difficulty in Parkinson’s disease is essential for improving the quality of life and health outcomes for patients. By exploring the causes, risks, and management strategies, we can provide better care and support for those living with this aspect of Parkinson’s disease.

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