Assessing the Swallow: 101

Assessing the Swallow:  101

Assessment of the swallow can be one of the most valuable pieces of information in your treatment plan for a patient with dysphagia.  There are so many factors that need to be considered when you receive an order for a patient with dysphagia.

Clarification of the order

It is vital to get a clarification of your order.  Talk to the nurse for that patient if available or speak to the ordering physician to find out why a swallowing evaluation was ordered in the first place.  There are times that an evaluation is ordered because the person can’t swallow their potassium pill (I’m not sure if there are any people that can actually swallow that enormous pill!)

Chart Review

A thorough chart review should be performed prior to walking in to see that patient.   Personally, I like to review the chart prior to speaking to the nurse, doctor, patient or family member so that I know as much as possible about that patient.

There are several parts of the chart that can provide critical information for assessment of your patient.  The important areas of the chart to review include lab results, chest xray results, medications and patient history/diagnoses.

Lab Results

Lab results can give you an look at your patient’s current medical status.  These are typically drawn daily in the acute care hospital setting and may be taken periodically or as needed in a Skilled Nursing Facility (SNF), Long Term Acute Care Hospital (LTACH) or Home Health setting.  There are several labs that can give you a good overall picture of your patient.

Nutrition:  Body Mass Index (BMI) and Albumin/Prealbumin are numbers that give us good information of the overall nutrition/hydration status of our patients.

White Blood Count (WBC):  The number of WBC can tell us if the patient has an infection (number is high) or if the patient is at risk for infection (number is low).  It is important to note the Neutrophil number as these are the cells that are in the oral cavity and help to eliminate bacteria from the oral cavity.  When Neutrophils are high or low the patient may have an increased risk of developing a pneumonia.

Red Blood Count (RBC):  This number tells us how effective the body is in circulating oxygen through the body.  Important to note is that if Hemoglobin is below 8 or if Hematocrit is below 25%, therapy should be deferred as the patient is not medically stable to participate in therapy at that time.

Sodium, Potassium and Chloride give us a good look at nerve conduction and assist in muscle function.   Sodium, Potassium and Chloride are electrolytes.  These electrolytes also play a role in acid/base balance within the body. has a great review of lab values which you can find here.

Chest Xrays:

While chest xray results can be very valuable, interpretation can be tricky.  Typically the radiologist will indicate if there are infiltrates and which lung lobe the infiltrates are found.  Infiltrates do not always indicate aspiration of food or drink.  To be accurate in determination of what has been aspirated, a culture would have to be completed.   It is important to note as well that aspiration can be from refluxed or vomited material which would need medical management.  It is also important to note that aspiration of food/liquids can occur in either lobe, left or right.


Medication can alter many aspects of a patient’s functioning.  Medication can dry out mucosal membranes (antihistimines, allergy medications, antidepressants, anticholinergics, analgesics, diuretics), affect motor function (Parkinson’s medication, antidepressants, antiepileptics, anticholinergics) or medications such as Haldol can worsen the swallow.  It is important to note changes in function as they correlate with new medications or changes in medication.  Also remember that having the ability to look up medications can be vital as some diagnoses may not be listed for patients and medications can lead you to uncovering diagnoses not listed otherwise in the medical chart.

Patient History:

Patient history can absolutely be the meat of your chart review.   This is where you are looking at patient diagnoses, particularly any diagnosis that can lead to a dysphagia.  It is important to note if the patient has a history or diagnosis of dysphagia, recurrent pneumonia, degenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s or ALS, history of TBI or stroke or even diabetes that has not been managed well.

In the history will often also be a discussion on why the patient was admitted to the hospital or to the facility and may even touch on swallowing, whether the patient has had difficulty for some time or if there is new difficulty with swallowing.  If the history makes no indication of swallowing difficulty and the patient has an infiltrate in either lung, aspiration may not be related to swallowing difficulty.

After a thorough chart review, you are probably ready to see the patient.  It is very important, when possible, to interview the patient to see how they view the problem, whether or not there is a history of dysphagia that is not listed in the chart and the complaint that prompted an SLP evaluation.

Using Vital Signs

Vital signs such as oxygen saturation, heart rate, respiratory rate can all give you valuable information on your patients.  These can all give you an idea of current medical status and if the patient is able to have endurance for a meal or even for your evaluation.   Oxygen saturation and temperature have often been used to determine if a patient is aspirating, however there is no evidence that links a spike in temperature or a drop in oxygen saturation with an aspiration event.

During the Evaluation

During your Clinical Swallowing Evaluation (CSE), it is critical that you assess cranial nerve function.  Not sure how to do that?  We have you covered AND you can catch up on last minute CEU’s at the same time!  Northern Speech Services has a phenomenal cranial nerve course for assessment and treatment of the swallow (yes, I am a little biased!  Yes, I do receive a small amount of money for this course if you choose to purchase it, but no fear, I will not retire from your purchase!)  You can also use screens such as Peak Flow and the 3 ounce swallow in addition to food or meal trials to determine if further, instrumental assessment is required.

You Can’t Do it All During the CSE

It is critical to remember that you will not be able to complete a full, reliable evaluation at bedside.  You cannot reliably assess pharyngeal function, airway protection or the effectiveness of modification, compensation or maneuvers without visualizing all of these areas with instrumental assessment.  The Clinical Swallowing Evaluation can lead you to determine whether an instrumental assessment is required or if there is no need.

Instrumental Assessment

If you feel that the patient needs a modified diet, requires use of compensation, maneuvers or that you need to develop an effective treatment plan for your patient, instrumental assessment would be indicated.  You may only have Modified Barium Swallow Studies (MBSS) or you may only have Flexible Endoscopic Evaluation of Swallowing (FEES) available.  Both can be very effective in determining pathophysiology of the pharyngeal swallow, to determine how the bolus flows throughout the oropharyngeal cavity and into the esophagus, effectiveness of airway protection, diet modification as well as the accuracy and effectiveness of maneuvers and compensations.

If you are looking for guidance through the Clinical Bedside Evaluation (CSE) there is an app for that!  Look for Dysphagia2Go available through the App Store for your iPad.

There is also an app from Tactus Therapy called Dysphagia Therapy that can assist you with cranial nerves, the clinical exam and choosing therapeutic techniques.  You can buy that right here.

You may have also heard about this pocketguide that I helped to write.   It’s called The Adult Dysphagia PocketGuide Neuroanatomy to Clinical Practice.   This is a great guide to help you through the evaluation and treatment planning process.   If you don’t win a copy this year (2019) from my give-away, you can purchase a copy of the Pocketguide here.  Again, small amount of money for me, no fear of retirement from both the book and the apps!

Also, look for articles on Dysphagia Ramblings related to assessment including:

We Can’t Treat What We Don’t Know

Standardizing Dysphagia Assessment and Treatment

Aspiration Risk”

Oral Care

The Interview

  • Leder, S..B., Suiter, D.M., & Warner, H.L. (2009). Answering orientation qustions and following single-step verbal commands: effect on aspiration status.  Dysphagia, 24(3), 290-295.
  • Langmore, S. E., Skarupski, K. A., Park, P. S., & Fries, B. E. (2002). Predictors of aspiration pneumonia in nursing home residents. Dysphagia17(4), 298-307.
  • 57  Martin-Harris B, Brodsky MB,  Michel Y,  Castell DO Schleicher D, et al.  MBS Measurement Tool for Swallow Impairment—MBSImp: Establishing a Standard.  Dysphagia, 2008, Volume 23, Number 4, Pages 392-405.
  • Suiter DM, Leder SB.  3 Ounces is All You Need.  Perspectives on Swallowing and Swallowing Disorders (Dysphagia).  2009; 18(4):  111-116.
  • Logemann, J.A. (1998).  Evaluation and treatment of swallowing disorders (2nd ed).  Austin, TX: Pro-Ed.27 Wijting Y., Freed M. (2009).  Training Manual for the use of Neuromuscular Electrical Stimulation in the treatment of Dysphagia.
  • Hamdy, S. (2006). Role of cerebral cortex in the control of swallowing. GI Motility online.doi:10.1038/gimo8.




3 thoughts on “Assessing the Swallow: 101

  1. Great write up. I struggle most with the clarification of order, especially when I’m in a SNF and the doctor is never there. I always check with nursing but many times there has been a shift change and they can’t even figure it out! How do you decide when to move ahead with the eval and when to postpone until you can get clarification?

    1. For me, I’ll do the chart review and see if there’s anything relevant there. Also asking the nurse if they’ve noticed any issues or changes. Sometimes the CNA can also be a big help on determining if there’s truly a problem.

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