Ask the Expert: What is Vitalstem Therapy?

Q. What is VitalStem Therapy?
A. VitalStim Therapy is the first FDA approved treatment for dysphagia which is difficulty swallowing. It is a non-invasive neuromuscular electrical stimulation therapy that re-educates the throat muscles needed for swallowing.

Electrodes are placed on the neck where the swallow muscles are and a small current is delivered through the electrodes.  The motor nerves in the throat are stimulated and the muscles responsible for swallowing contract, which overtime allows the patient to slowly be able to eat and drink on their own again. Results are typically seen after anywhere from six to 20 sessions, varying from person to person.

Q. How does it work?
A. A speech therapist will work with the individual to first determine the cause of the swallowing problem. That initial assessment includes a painless x-ray of the swallowing process to identify potential problem areas.  Then the speech-language pathologist will determine if swallow deficits meet specific criteria to make the patient a candidate for VitalStim Therapy.

Not all swallowing problems can be solved with VitalStim.  People who are on thickened liquids due to swallowing problems, people who cough or choke when eating or drinking and people who have a history of aspiration or pneumonia are individuals that may benefit most from VitalStim Therapy.

Q. What are the benefits?
A. Currently people with difficulty swallowing often have to use a feeding tube. If we can work on strengthening their swallowing utilizing this new treatment then the costs and risks that come along with feeding tubes are reduced and the comfort and quality of life for the patient are greatly improved.

Q. Where is this treatment available?
A. The treatment must be provided by speech-language pathologists certified in VitalStim Therapy.  I am certified as a VitalStim Therapy provider at the Ball Memorial Hospital Physical Rehab Center and currently am working with adult outpatients and rehab inpatients.

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