Managing Dysphagia After a Traumatic Brain Injury

Managing Dysphagia After a Traumatic Brain Injury

Post-TBI Dysphagia: You Can Overcome It.

As we’ve discussed recently, the period of time after a traumatic brain injury (TBI) is crucial to the recovery process. You see, patients recovering from TBI can suffer from additional health issues post-injury. One of the most common post-TBI health challenges is a condition called dysphagia, which happens when one has difficulty swallowing food or liquids.1 If you or a loved one suffers from dysphagia, follow your physician’s treatment plan closely to avoid additional health complications.

Dysphagia should always be taken seriously, because it can lead to malnutrition and aspiration of food or liquids into the lungs. Aspiration can lead to pneumonia, which at its worst can be deadly.1


Multiple Factors Contribute to Post-TBI Dysphagia

Dysphagia due to traumatic brain injury can occur for a number of reasons, which is why it is so commonplace. Patients may experience swallowing difficulties due to:

  • Medication that inhibits the swallowing function or causes GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease) that damages or scars tissue in the esophagus.
  • An injury to the throat or esophagus that results during intubation.
  • Long-term intubation or tracheostomy after injury.
  • Weakening of swallowing muscles that aren’t used for a prolonged period.1,2


If the patient needs to undergo multiple surgeries to treat a brain injury the odds of experiencing dysphagia increase. In addition, the more severe the injury, the longer it typically takes for the patient to regain the ability to swallow food or drink orally vs. getting nourishment through a feeding tube.1,2

Some Factors Increase Length of Feeding Tube Use

Other factors that increase the likelihood that TBI patients will need to use a feeding tube for a longer period of time include:

  • Severity of injury
  • Advanced age
  • Tracheostomy placement
  • Loss of voice diagnosed at admission


Patients with TBI may be challenged with memory or behavioral problems, which can complicate recovery, too. With the right treatment plan and a dedication to following therapy recommendations, most patients can overcome post-TBI dysphagia.


Some Components Included in Treatment Plans for Post-TBI Dysphagia Include: 

  • Instruction in safe swallowing techniques.
  • Education on type, consistency and temperature of foods and drinks to introduce and at what time.
  • Guidance on how to eat, such as take small bites, eat slowly, don’t talk until after swallowing, etc.
  • A strategy or plan to use if the patient chokes or coughs after swallowing.
  • Use of memory aids to remind patient to practice safe swallowing techniques.
  • Participation in dysphagia treatment groups to reinforce education and learn new strategies.
  • Special accommodations for memory or behavioral issues.


There Is Hope for Post-TBI Dysphagia Patients

Every patient’s brain injury is unique to him or her. So, be sure to maintain an open dialogue with doctors and therapists to monitor recovery and adjust treatment when necessary.

If you or a loved one is suffering from dysphagia following a brain injury, try to stay positive. It may take time and some good therapy, but most post-TBI dysphagia patients recover eventually.





1. Mackay LE, Morgan AS, Bernstein BA. “Swallowing disorders in severe brain injury: risk factors affecting return to oral intake.” Arch Phys Med Rehabil. 1999 Apr; 80(4): 365-71.

2. Mandaville A. “A Retrospective Review of Swallow Dysfunction in Patients with Severe Traumatic Brain Injury,” [abstract]. Dysphagia; 14 Jan. Available at; [published online Jan. 14, 2014]. Accessed May 13, 2014.]]>