With 15 million documented cases, it's most common in senior citizens, although experts suspect it's widely under-diagnosed. When it is diagnosed, it often means serious lifestyle changes.
"People had to either not eat and have tube feedings, or they had to be on a modified diet and drink thickened liquids the rest of their life," said Maasen.
Now, a new therapy called VitalStim uses electrical currents to retrain throat muscles and keep food and liquids from going down the wrong pipe.
Studies show it helps 98% of patients.
"Recently, we've had a brainstem stroke patient who had a feeding tube in his stomach and he was not able to eat," said Maasen. "Now, after 19 sessions with VitalStim, he's back on a regular diet, eating and drinking whatever he wants. That includes Big Macs. He loves Big Macs and he's back to eating Big Macs."
Maasen described Vitalstim as virtually painless, with just a tingling sensation. Most swallowing disorder patients include stroke survivors, people with neurological disorders like Parkinson's, ALS and MS, plus those who are just naturally aging. They're all good candidates for VitalStim, except those who have pacemakers or seizures.
Most patients need 6-20 VitalStim sessions, which are an hour each. St. Mary's Health Center in Jefferson City and Boone Hospital Center in Columbia have speech pathologists who are certified in VitalStim.