Best Exercises for Dysphagia

Medically Reviewed by Carol DerSarkissian, MD on November 29, 2022
3 min read

Dysphagia is the medical term for difficulty swallowing. It is more common in older people, but may also be present in people with certain conditions like:

Difficulty swallowing can lead to nutrition and hydration issues, choking, and aspiration pneumonia (an infection resulting from material from the mouth and stomach entering the lungs). People with dysphagia benefit from doing different swallowing exercises. Such condition-specific exercises can help to improve swallowing muscle strength and coordination, improving the symptoms of dysphagia.

To complete these exercises, people often need help and guidance from a medical professional. Examples include speech-language pathologists and occupational therapists. However, once someone knows how to do the exercises, they can practice them at home as well as with the medical professional.

Those with dysphagia should first do exercises like the ones listed below under the care of a medical professional like a speech-language pathologist or an occupational therapist. They can guide the person step by step through the exercises and tell them if they’re doing the exercises correctly.

1. Effortful Swallow

Step 1: Gather the saliva in your mouth in the middle of your tongue.

Step 2: Keep your lips pressed together.

Step 3: Swallow all the saliva at once like you’re swallowing a grape or a pill.

2. Dynamic Shaker

Step 1: Lie on your back on a flat surface. Make sure your shoulders are against the surface and do not use a pillow or headrest.

Step 2: Keeping your shoulders on the surface, lift your chin as if you’re trying to look at your feet.

Step 3: Lower your head back down to the surface.

Step 4: Repeat 30 times. Then rest for 2 minutes. Repeat as many times as indicated by a medical professional.

3. Jaw Thrust

Step 1: Push your lower jaw as far forward as possible, placing your lower teeth in front of your upper teeth.

Step 2: Hold the position for the amount of time determined by your doctor or physical therapist.

Step 3: Repeat as many times as indicated by your doctor or physical therapist.

4. Masako Maneuver

Step 1: Stick your tongue out of your mouth.

Step 2: Bite down gently on your tongue to keep it in place.

Step 3: Swallow while holding your tongue between your teeth.

Step 4: Release your tongue. Then, repeat as many times as indicated by a medical professional.

5. Mendelsohn Maneuver

Step 1: Press the index, middle, and ring finger of one hand on your neck to locate your Adam’s apple—the small bump or simply the skin on the front of your neck below the chin.

Step 2: Swallow once, noticing how the Adam’s apple moves up and down when you swallow.

Step 3: Swallow again, but this time, squeeze your throat muscles to hold your Adam’s apple at its highest point.

Step 4: Hold it for as long as indicated by your doctor, or as long as you can if you can’t yet hold it for that long.

6. Supraglottic Maneuver

Step 1: Collect a bit of saliva in your mouth.

Step 2: Take a deep breath and hold it.

Step 3: Swallow while holding your breath. 

Step 4: Immediately after swallowing, cough.

Step 5: Once you have this down with saliva, you can try with food or drink, at the direction of a medical professional.

7. Hyoid Lift Maneuver

Step 1: Gather materials—a drinking straw, pieces of paper towel, and a cup. You can start with 3 to 5 pieces of paper and work up to 10 as your strength increases.

Step 2: Place the straw in your mouth.

Step 3: Suck on the straw, picking up a piece of the paper with the suction that forms.

Step 4: Keep the suction strong enough to carry each piece of paper over to a cup.

Step 5: Stop sucking and let the paper fall into the cup.

Step 6: Repeat until all pieces of paper are in the cup.

You should only perform swallowing exercises under the care of a medical professional. There is a risk of choking. A physical therapist, occupational therapist, or speech-language pathologist will help you figure out which exercises to do safely. They will develop a program to help you work up to the exercises that are more difficult in a safe manner.  

If you experience significant pain or discomfort while doing these exercises, stop immediately and tell your doctor or physical therapist.