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Parkinson’s Disease Awareness Month | Helpful tips for swallowing pills

If you or someone you know is affected by Parkinson’s Disease, you know it is a progressive nervous system disorder that affects movements and often negatively impact one’s ability to walk, speak and swallow. 

According to Suttrup & Warnecke, 80% of patients with Parkinson’s Disease (PD) develop dysphagia during the course of their disease (Dysphagia, Feb 2016).  This may also impact a patient’s ability to take medications that are recommended by their doctor to help treat symptoms of the disorder.

Stuck In The Throat

During my years of clinical practice, patients frequently shared their frustrations about their struggle to take some of their medications.  Many noted the feeling like the pills were “stuck in their throat” or “they couldn’t get the medicine taste out of their mouth.”  Such unpleasant experiences caused them and their loved ones to feel stress and become overwhelmed. Many of their medications were timed released and could not be crushed adding to the complexity.        

Helpful Tips

Here are a few suggestions that my mentor, Paulette Wood, MS ccc-slp, and I recommend trying to help with swallowing medications. Remember, always speak to your health care providers about the safest options for you or your loved one to consume medications. 

Turn Your Head: Prior to taking a pill turn your head towards one shoulder and keep it turned while swallowing.  If assisting a loved one, instruct the person to swallowing “keeping their head turned”. 

Some research says to tell the person to turn their head toward their weakest side. If there is no weak side, just turn to whichever side feels most comfortable.  In technical terms, this maneuver helps flatten the epiglottis encouraging the pill to not catch in the vallecular sinus.  You may also encourage this behavior by having a caregiver or nurse stand on one side of the patient with the pill.  Generally, the patient will instinctively turn their head toward the side of the caregiver or nurse to take the pill.

Add a Smooth Texture: Embed a pill in baby food applesauce (yes, baby food applesauce) may help move a pill along more quickly and efficiently.  Because the texture is smooth there may be less clumping or residue on the walls of the pharynx or throat.

Say Hello to Jell-O: For people living at home, you might try making Jell-O in a shallow pan.  As the Jell-O begins to set, place the pills in rows much like a pill cassette.   A caregiver then cuts individual squares of the Jell-O containing the pill(s) at the time they are to be administered.  Don’t try to embed a pill after the Jell-O has completely set.

Drop the Water: Use a nectar thick liquid rather than water for pill swallowing may help some patients clear the pill from their throat or pharynx.  Sometimes the water does not have enough bulk to move a pill that is stuck.  Some patients prefer V-8 or nectar juices.

 

And, after all the effort to take medications, having a melt-in-your-mouth EAT Bar can really be a treat!

Source: Suttrup, I, Warnecke, Dysphagia in Parkinson’s Disease Dysphagia. February 2016, Vol 31, Issue 1, pp24-32