Jaw Exercises for Dysphagia Therapy

Dysphagia, a disorder that causes difficulty with chewing and swallowing food, affects a significant number of stroke patients, especially in the first two weeks following a stroke. In some cases, a stroke can damage the area of the brain responsible for swallowing. While many stroke survivors regain swallowing function quickly, this does not always happen.

Dysphagia can cause serious complications such as aspiration pneumonia, dehydration, and malnutrition, and may occasionally lead to death. But dysphagia therapy techniques, such as jaw exercises, can significantly improve swallowing function.

A middle-aged woman holding her jaw
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Stroke and Dysphagia

A stroke occurs when the blood supply to part of your brain is interrupted or severely reduced, depriving brain tissue of oxygen and nutrients. Within minutes, brain cells begin to die. Stroke can affect the areas of the brain that control the muscles of chewing. This causes difficulty in generating a mass of food that is soft and small enough to be swallowed. Indirectly, this leads to dysphagia.

This is why for many people, jaw exercises can dramatically improve the ability to swallow. Dysphagia therapy can help a person maintain quality of life.

Introduction to Dysphagia Therapy

Dysphagia therapy involves a variety of exercises that work the jaw, lip, and/or tongue, or practice actual swallowing. The jaw is most important during chewing, when it helps us break food down into smaller pieces which are combined into a single food bolus.

Here you'll find three simple exercises that can help you regain your jaw strength and return a great deal of your swallowing ability.

Sideways Jaw Stretch

This exercise helps to recreate some of the actual movements performed during chewing, but just a little more exaggerated. Simply move your jaw from one side to the other going as far sideways as you can. You should not feel pain from this exercise, but you should be able to feel stretching of the muscle. Challenge yourself and push a little bit further each day. But always stop if you begin to feel pain, or if you develop a jaw cramp. Repeat 5 to 10 times in each session.

Open Jaw Stretch

The point of this exercise is to stretch the jaw muscles. Make-believe that you are about to bite on a gigantic apple and open your mouth as wide as you can. Don't open it so wide that you develop a cramp, but make sure that as you open it you feel that the muscles of the jaw are actually being stretched. Repeat this exercise 5 to 10 times keeping your mouth open for 5 to 10 seconds each time.

Jaw Circles

With your jaw, draw circles in the air. In other words, move your jaw in a circular motion trying to make the largest circle possible. Again, try to stretch the muscles as you do this. Perform this exercise 5 to 10 times.

Dysphagia After Stroke

Dysphagia is a potential complication for people who have had a stroke. Clinical guidelines recommend early screening for dysphagia after stroke to help reduce the chances of dangerous health effects, including pneumonia, malnutrition, dehydration and other complications. Feeding tubes are recommended for people who cannot safely swallow within seven days of experiencing stroke.

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  2. Langmore SE, Pisegna JM. Efficacy of exercises to rehabilitate dysphagia: A critique of the literature. International Journal of Speech-Language Pathology. 2015 May 4;17(3):222-9. doi:10.3109/17549507.2015.1024171

  3. Winstein CJ, Stein J, Arena R, et al. Guidelines for adult stroke rehabilitation and recovery: A guideline for healthcare professionals from the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association. Stroke. 2016 Jun;47(6):e98-e169. doi: 10.1161/STR.0000000000000098.

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