Picture from: www.busymomboutique.com
Looking for an exercise.
Haven’t you always wanted a very simple exercise that will work and strengthen the entire swallowing mechanism using resistance? I do as well. I have an exercise that I use all the time with my patients. I am usually chastised by my co-workers when having patients use this exercise. Patients give me a strange look until they try it.
What’s it called?
This exercise has no fancy name. I call it……..Pudding with a Straw. It is exactly as the name implies. The patient drinks pudding through a straw.
What does the evidence tell us?
So first, let’s look at the evidence……. I take into account that, from reading research…..I know using a straw increases labial activation. A thicker, heavier bolus can add resistance to the swallow and can actually increase the movements both orally and pharyngeally with the swallow because of the sensory input from the heavier bolus. Using an effortful swallow increases sensory input to the swallowing mechanism. Swallowing is a sub maximal event as a whole, but when the patient focuses and purposefully uses a more effortful swallow, there is an increase in the muscle contraction of the entire swallowing mechanism. There is an increased benefit in cuing the patient to swallow the entire bolus as hard and fast as possible.
Putting it all together
I take all of this into account and then try the method myself, to see what I feel. When I drink pudding through a straw, not a Panera smoothie straw, not a regular drinking straw, a cocktail straw/coffee stirrer size straw, I can feel a difference. My lips purse together with increased effort. My tongue retracts and tightens, my jaw tightens. I then suck enough pudding through the straw to swallow and use an effortful swallow. At one time, I have incorporated straw use with a safe consistency bolus for most, an effortful swallow and a weighted bolus. I have also used the entire swallowing structure.
I believe it is important and necessary that we look at the swallowing mechanism as a whole, a process, rather than 4 parts. It’s great to break the swallowing system down into phases for descriptive purposes, but every part of the swallow is connected in some manner and every part of the swallow deserves some attention.
It’s difficult to target one portion of the swallow when actually working with swallowing. This is where the Home Exercise Program (HEP) can be beneficial in targeting a specific muscle/muscle group when necessary. This doesn’t mean the saying k/g words 1 million times a day. This means evidence-based functional exercises.
Where to begin.
Keep in mind, not every patient can start at the level of a small cocktail straw/coffee stirrer or even the pudding. I can modify the straw by either using a larger diameter straw (Panera smoothie straws seem to be the largest I’ve found at this point). Regular drinking straws also work very well. Not only can I change the diameter of the straw, I can change the size of the straw by cutting it in half or in thirds. The shorter the straw, the easier the task.
Viscosity of the bolus.
The viscosity of pudding can be varied as well. Many times I will use a thickened liquid or applesauce for patients that are not able to start with pudding. I may work up to yogurt, without the fruit. Then with the pudding, in my experience, I have found that sugar-free pudding seems to be the thinnest, followed by home-made, then Snack Pack pudding. Snack Pudding, the chocolate seems to be the lesser viscous, followed by butterscotch, with vanilla having the thickest viscosity. Room temperature vs. refrigerated also makes a difference. Room temperature pudding is a little less tedious for the patients, while with the refrigerated, I’m also adding the temperature aspect to my sensory portion of therapy, in addition to the difficulty of the task.
What is the goal, you might ask.
I don’t write a goal for the patient sucking pudding through a straw. We may be working on lingual strengthening, pharyngeal strengthening, tongue base retraction, labial seal. I don’t write my notes as “the patient was able to drink a Snack Pack cup of refrigerated chocolate pudding.” We were working on using an effortful swallow, straw sucking for increased labial seal, weighted bolus for resistance.
Now I do time my patients and keep track of the time. I will time the patient to see how long it takes to complete the task. As the patient gains strength with the task, the time should decrease. You can also use e-stim or sEMG with your patient as they are completing the task.
Keep your cool.
I don’t stress if the patient needs the entire session time to complete the task. This is what I want them to do!! I want the patient to use an effortful swallow. I want to apply the rules of neuroplasticity and use a specific swallowing task, applying resistance and specificity. My patient is swallowing, using both an effortful swallow with a focus of tongue to palate contact and using a weighted bolus with the thick pudding.
I challenge you to try this exercise. Try the vanilla with the coffee stirrer/cocktail straws and feel what the exercise does for you!
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