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A Therapy Using Electrodes Helps Patients Move from Feeding Tubes to Eating Normally

Imagine if you lost your ability to swallow. How would you learn to eat again?

Beaufort Memorial Hospital therapists are using a new method applying electrical stimulation to help stroke patients, seniors and others with problems swallowing regain that basic reflex.

The regimen of electrotherapy, swallowing exercises and special diets is giving patients previously limited to feeding tubes, pureed foods or coughing at the dinner table a chance at enjoying their favorite meals normally.

Beaufort resident Artie Heape is one of the hospital’s success stories.

He began choking on food and accidentally inhaling it this spring after surgeries removing half his lung and a triple heart bypass weakened his ability to swallow.

“When he started his treatment he had a feeding tube,” said Laurie Martin, pathology department director. “Three weeks ago I ate dinner with him at Duke’s BBQ.”

After three months of therapy, Heape said he’s off his feeding tube and back devouring anything he wants.

“You don’t think about (swallowing) when it just always happens and you didn’t have to worry about it before,” said senior speech pathologist Kim Cummings. “It’s like a life sentence if you can’t eat.”

The disorder can disrupt social lives that revolve around eating out, cause weight loss and raise the risk of pneumonia, she said.

About 15 million people in the U.S. suffer from dysphagia, or difficulty swallowing, most of whom are elderly, claims Chattanooga Group, which began marketing the therapy called VitalStim in 2003.

For some, the normal aging process is to blame. Others have survived strokes, throat or neck cancer or neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s.

In each case, the mouth and throat muscles weaken, causing food to stick in the throat or liquids to enter the windpipe instead of going down the trachea and into the stomach.

During a 45-minute treatment, four nickel-sized electrodes taped to the patient’s neck cause the muscles to contract into swallows, strengthening the reflex through repetition.

“Have you ever grabbed a hold of an electric wire?” asked Heape, smiling as Cummings raised the charge flowing to his neck to 16 milliamps.

Cheryl Eckstein, Compassionate Healthcare Network (CHN),
CHN is member of the World Federation of Doctors Who Respect Human Life (WFDWRHL) Dr. Karl Gunning, Pres..
[, August 28 2007, By REBEKAH L. SANDERS, [email protected] 843-986-5539; N Valko RN, 29Aug07]