Can Parkinson's Disease Cause Dysphagia?

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Faith Wershba

Faith Wershba

Postgraduate researcher at the University of Cambridge.

Can Parkinsons Disease Cause Dysphagia?

Yes, dysphagia is a common symptom experienced by individuals with Parkinson’s disease (PD). It is estimated that over 80% of patients with Parkinson's disease suffer from dysphagia [1].

Dysphagia is difficulty or discomfort in swallowing, which may be caused by a variety of diseases and conditions, including Parkinson’s. This symptom can significantly diminish an individual’s health and quality of life because it can make eating challenging, which may lead to malnutrition [1]. Another risk posed by dysphagia is aspiration pneumonia, wherein food, liquid or particulate matter may enter the airway and lead to pulmonary infection. Aspiration pneumonia is the leading cause of death associated with PD [1]; therefore, it is crucial that dysphagia is recognised and managed to avoid such complications.

The physical act of swallowing progresses in three phases: oral, esophageal, and laryngeal. Parkinson's-related dysphagia can disrupt any of these three phases due to motor dysfunction of the muscles involved [2]. Unfortunately, the biological mechanism which causes the progression of dysphagia in Parkinson's disease remains unclear, which poses a challenge to prevention.

Interestingly, dopaminergic medications, which are often used to treat motor symptoms in patients with Parkinson's disease, do not seem to have a beneficial effect for dysphagia or swallowing performance [3]. Hence, the dysphagia may be caused by a different mechanism than other motor dysfunctions associated with Parkinson's.

It is also important to recognise that, while dysphagia often occurs as a result of PD, it is not a Parkinson’s-specific condition. There are various other factors which are unrelated to Parkinson's and can contribute to or exacerbate this condition [4].

Faith Wershba

Faith Wershba

Faith obtained her Honour’s Bachelor Degree in Human Biology, Immunology and History & Philosophy of Science at the University of Toronto. Currently, she is a postgraduate researcher at the University of Cambridge, focusing on the philosophy of medicine, science, biomedical research methods, and bioethics.