Throat Exercises for Dysphagia (Trouble Swallowing)

Why do throat exercises for dysphagia? Well – Are you having trouble swallowing food or drinks regularly?

Does every bite or sip feel like a risky and complicated task?

Do you struggle to move food down your throat because it gets stuck?

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, you could be experiencing dysphagia, a swallowing disorder.

Throat exercises for dysphagia 101

In this comprehensive throat cleaner throat disease blog post, you’ll find everything you need to know about dysphagia, including its prevalence, its causes, and what symptoms to look out for. You’ll also find exercises proven to strengthen your tongue and throat muscles, making swallowing easier and more enjoyable. If you want to dive deeper into throat diseases, make sure to check out our most common throat diseases or strep throat symptoms guides!

Short Summary

  • Recognize the causes, symptoms, and complications of dysphagia.
  • Consult a healthcare provider for evaluation and treatment options if you regularly exhibit dysphagia symptoms.
  • Perform swallowing exercises as prescribed at home, as well as with the assistance of your speech-language therapist.

An image of a woman holding her neck while practicing throat exercises for dysphagia.

What is Dysphagia?

Dysphagia is chronic trouble with swallowing, which requires more effort and time to propel food or liquid from your mouth to your stomach.

If you are having trouble swallowing, know that you are not alone. Every year, 10 million Americans seek evaluation for this problem (1).

The number of people affected by dysphagia is uncertain, but studies suggest that roughly 22% of individuals aged 50 or older may experience this condition (1). Moreover, it is estimated that 300,000 to 600,000 (1) people in the U.S. suffer from neurogenic dysphagia, a swallowing disorder caused by neurological disease, annually.

Because dysphagia is a key feature of numerous diseases, it is often misunderstood and frequently goes undiagnosed.

The Mechanics of Swallowing

Although swallowing may seem simple and automatic, it is a complex and coordinated action involving around 50 muscles and numerous nerves working together to allow us to chew and swallow food and liquid.

Any problem in the mouth, jaw, tongue, throat, and/or esophagus can make it difficult or, in extreme cases, impossible to swallow.

Causes of Dysphagia

Various factors can cause dysphagia or chronic problems with swallowing. Issues with the esophagus, the muscular tube connecting the mouth to the stomach are common causes. These issues may include the malfunctioning of esophageal muscles, esophageal tumors, blockage in the throat, and damage to esophageal tissues resulting from stomach acid (acid reflux).

Dysphagia can also result from weakening throat muscles, which may occur due to neurological conditions like stroke, traumatic brain injury, or multiple sclerosis. It can also be caused by an alteration in sensory and motor functions, as occurs in neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s. Additionally, some medications may cause problems with swallowing.

An image of a senior man with his fist over his mouth choking on food.

Symptoms of Dysphagia

Symptoms that may indicate dysphagia can include:

  • Difficulty or inability to swallow
  • Choking on food
  • Gagging when swallowing food
  • Painful swallowing
  • A feeling of food getting stuck in the throat or chest area
  • Food coming back up into the mouth (regurgitation)
  • Frequent heartburn
  • Hoarseness

Complications of Dysphagia

Not being able to swallow correctly can lead to many serious issues, including:

  • Malnutrition
  • Dehydration
  • Unintentional weight loss
  • Aspiration pneumonia, due to food or liquid with bacteria entering the lungs while attempting to swallow
  • Choking, due to food stuck in the throat. If the food blocks the airway completely, it can be fatal if the Heimlich maneuver isn’t successfully administered immediately.

When to Seek a Doctor

Occasionally experiencing any of the above symptoms is usually nothing to worry about. It could be a case of not chewing your food thoroughly or eating too quickly. But frequent dysphagia can signal a severe medical issue. Therefore, if you experience consistent difficulty swallowing or any other symptoms above, you must notify your healthcare provider for evaluation and treatment options.

In addition, if you experience a throat obstruction that hinders breathing or causes difficulty swallowing, visit the nearest emergency room immediately.

Your doctor will diagnose and treat the root cause of your dysphagia, which may include medication and, in some cases, surgery. They will also likely refer you to a speech-language pathologist (SLP) who will prescribe exercises to enhance your swallowing ability. The practices recommended will vary based on your swallowing issue.

The swallowing exercises that aim to enhance swallowing function focus on strengthening the muscles and enhancing coordination between the nerves and muscles involved in swallowing. Regularly exercising your swallowing muscles is the most effective way to improve your swallowing ability.

Throat Exercises for Dysphagia

In addition to the exercises your SLP may guide you through, you can also enhance your swallowing ability by practicing exercises at home.

Below are several swallowing exercises commonly prescribed by SLPs.

Dysphagia Larynx Lifting Exercises

Exercises that lift your larynx are meant to improve the strength and flexibility of the muscles in your voice box and eventually enhance your ability to swallow. If you experience difficulty with food or liquids entering your airways or lungs (aspiration), which can lead to pneumonia and other complications, these exercises can be particularly beneficial.

Common larynx lifting exercises include the Mendelson Maneuver and the Falsetto exercise.

Mendelson Maneuver

Here’s a simple exercise that can help improve your swallowing reflex. All you have to do is swallow your saliva! When you swallow, your Adam’s apple (the solid area about midway down the front of your neck that protrudes from your larynx) moves up and back down as the saliva enters the space just behind your mouth.

To do this exercise, try keeping your Adam’s apple elevated at its highest point for at least two seconds each time you swallow. If you’re not sure how to do this, you can use your fingers to help at first. Males might find this exercise easier, as their Adam’s apple is usually more prominent than females.

Perform this exercise multiple times a day until you can regulate your swallowing muscles independently without needing your hands.

Falsetto Exercise

Try using your voice to slide up the pitch scale as high as possible, creating a high-pitched, squeaky sound. Maintain this high pitch for a few seconds, using as much force as you can. You can gently pull up on your Adam’s apple during this exercise.

Closure of the Larynx Exercises

These exercises strengthen your throat’s natural ability to close your larynx to prevent food and fluid from entering your airways or lungs.

There are several simple larynx exercises your SLP may prescribe, including:

Supraglottic Swallow

Before attempting this exercise, it is recommended that you try it without food. Once you have become more proficient, you can try it with food in your mouth. But practicing this and the following variation with food is unnecessary. You can still achieve excellent results by simply swallowing your saliva.

The exercise involves three simple steps:

  1. Inhale deeply, and then hold your breath
  2. While holding your breath, swallow.
  3. Immediately after swallowing, while still holding your breath, cough to expel any saliva or food that may have gone past your vocal cords.

Super Supraglottic Swallow Maneuver

This exercise is similar to the supraglottic maneuver mentioned earlier, with an added step. Start by inhaling deeply and then bear down like having a bowel movement. Keep holding your breath and bearing down while swallowing. This will create pressure that can improve your ability to swallow and strengthen your swallowing muscles.

It is important to exercise caution when performing this activity. Individuals with uncontrolled blood pressure should avoid the super supraglottic swallow maneuver, as it can cause an increase in blood pressure due to bearing down.

Hyoid Lift Maneuver

Here’s an exercise to help you improve your ability to swallow with strength and control.

First, lay a towel or blanket on a flat surface and place several small pieces of paper (each about one inch in diameter) on top. Next, insert a straw into your mouth and suck one of the paper pieces onto its tip. With the paper securely attached, suck on the straw as you move the paper over to a cup or similar container. Stop sucking to release the paper into the container when you’re in position.

During each session, aim to transfer five to ten paper pieces into the container successfully.

Effortful Swallow

This exercise aims to enhance communication and coordination among the various muscles that are involved in the process of swallowing.

The exercise entails swallowing but with the added effort of contracting all the muscles involved in swallowing as tightly as possible. It’s not necessary to consume food during the exercise; a dry swallow is sufficient.

Repeat this exercise three times a day, performing five to ten repetitions each time to improve the strength of your muscles.

Shaker Exercise

Here’s a helpful exercise to improve your swallowing ability by strengthening your muscles.

To begin, lie flat on your back and lift your head as if trying to look at your toes. Remember not to raise your shoulders while doing this exercise. Hold this position as long as you comfortably can, and then perform as many repetitions as your SLP recommends.

Doing this exercise three to six times a day for at least six weeks is recommended. If you can do it successfully, try to increase the duration of each head lift and the number of repetitions.


If you suffer from chronic swallowing problems (dysphagia), you must visit a medical professional for diagnosis and treatment. They will recommend treatment options for the underlying causes of your dysphagia and refer you to a speech-language pathologist to rehabilitate your swallowing function.

These exercises can improve swallowing and help you eat better and with confidence, preventing aspiration, malnutrition, and other health.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can throat muscles be strengthened?

Yes. If you have difficulty swallowing, a speech-language pathologist (SLP) may recommend certain exercises to improve your swallowing. By practicing these exercises, you can increase the strength, mobility, and control of the swallowing muscles. Eventually, this can help you return to your normal swallowing functions.

Why are my swallowing muscles weak?

Dysphagia is a condition that occurs more frequently in older adults and can have various possible causes. It happens when the muscles and nerves responsible for swallowing are weakened or damaged. Those who suffer from neurological diseases like Parkinson’s disease or stroke are more likely to experience problems with swallowing.

What happens when the throat muscles weaken?

Weakness in the throat muscles can hinder the smooth transfer of food from the mouth to the esophagus, leading to choking, gagging, or coughing while attempting to swallow. It may also feel like food or liquid is entering your windpipe (trachea) or nose.

What is swallow therapy?

Engaging in swallowing therapy is crucial for improving swallowing function. It involves a range of exercises that target the muscles of the tongue and throat, ultimately leading to a safer and more effortless swallowing experience.