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Multiple Sclerosis Health Center

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Speech and Swallowing Problems From MS

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People with multiple sclerosis, or MS, often have trouble swallowing, a problem called dysphagia. It can also lead to speech problems. It happens when the disease damages the nerves in the brain and spinal cord that make these tasks happen.

For some people, these problems are mild. Others have a harder time dealing with severe symptoms. But treatments and techniques can help you improve your speech and make swallowing easier.

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8 Ways to Live Better With MS

Managing your life with MS isn't just about dealing with the symptoms you have right now. It's about thinking through what could happen in future -- the possible effects on your job, family, and finances -- and preparing for them. Even if your symptoms are mild, planning can make you feel better and be more confident in your future. "It's not bad luck to think about what you might do if your symptoms got worse," says Rosalind Kalb, PhD, a clinical psychologist and vice president of clinical care...

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Symptoms of a Swallowing Problem

You might:

  • Cough or choke when you eat
  • Feel like food is lodged in your throat
  • Get a lot of lung infections, like pneumonia, that you can’t explain

When you can’t swallow properly, you might inhale food or liquids into your windpipe instead of getting them down your esophagus and into your stomach. Once in the lungs, they can cause pneumonia or abscesses. You could also be at risk for malnutrition or dehydration because your food and water aren’t getting to your stomach.

Symptoms of Speech Problems

The kinds of speech problems MS causes can vary depending on which part of the brain is damaged. Someone with the disease might have mild trouble with words or severe problems that make it hard for them to speak and be understood. A problem that’s subtle in the beginning might get worse over time.

People with MS usually have a few distinctive language problems:

  • “Scanning" speech, when a person’s normal speech pattern is disrupted with long pauses between words or syllables
  • Slurring words. It usually happens because of weak tongue, lip, and mouth muscles.
  • Trouble changing tone of voice
  • Nasal-sounding speech

Getting a Diagnosis

Your doctor will ask you about your symptoms and do a physical exam, paying attention to how well your tongue and other muscles in your mouth and throat work.

In some cases, your doctor may recommend that you get a test called a modified barium swallow. You’ll drink a special liquid that coats your mouth, throat, and esophagus, and your doctor will give you an X-ray. The fluid makes your insides stand out on the image. The test helps your doctor pinpoint where and why you’re having trouble swallowing.

Your doctor might suggest that you see a speech therapist or a speech-language pathologist. She can figure out which part of your speech is affected and study your breathing control and way you move your lips, tongue, and other parts of your mouth.

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