Helping stroke victims with eating

Many of us may take the simple act of swallowing for granted, but Ruth Martin hopes she has found a way to improve the lives of patients who have lost the ability to do so.

During recovery from stroke or head and neck cancer treatment, many patients find they can no longer swallow – a condition called dysphagia, which affects 11 million North Americans. Patients with dysphagia are at increased risk of aspiration pneumonia, malnutrition and long stays in the hospital. In patients with severe dysphagia, nourishment by tube is required.

“Dysphagia often denies a person one of the most satisfying and pleasurable experiences – eating,” says Martin, a professor in Western’s School of Communication Sciences and Disorders in the Faculty of Health Sciences.

“Dysphagia also marginalizes affected individuals. That is, people who are fed via a tube tend to miss the opportunities for human connection that occur around the dinner table, and are so often associated with enjoying food and drink,” she says.

Martin has developed a novel technique called Swallowing Air-Pulse Therapy (SWAPT) and an associated device that shows promise in improving swallowing function in patients. The system delivers controlled air pulses to the back of the mouth where swallowing is triggered.

“The early signs are that this is a promising therapy,” says Martin. “I’m hopeful that, based on what we have seen so far, this therapy will help people with dysphagia regain the ability to swallow and thus resume substantial oral nutrition.”

The invention is the only one of its kind, and would help fill a gap in treatments for swallowing problems. In addition to social benefits, the invention could save many lives and hundreds of millions of dollars in health care costs.

For Martin, working with Industry Liaison and protecting her intellectual property has been a vital part of her research. “The technology transfer process around our swallowing device has increased the likelihood that it will be made available to individuals who suffer from swallowing impairment, ” she says.