SMA and Aspiration

People with spinal muscular atrophy may experience several problems related to feeding. One such problem is food or drink entering the respiratory tract instead of the esophagus, referred to as aspiration. Aspiration can occur during eating and drinking or as a result of the contents of the stomach coming back up into the esophagus. This is especially a problem during times of respiratory illness, when vomiting, or in cases when chewing and swallowing are difficult.

Aspiration can occur if SMA impairs the tongue and jaw muscles, causing trouble moving food around the mouth, making it more difficult to protect the airways. Short-term illnesses also make the person weaker, leaving them at a higher risk of aspirating food or drinks.

It is important to recognize the signs and risk factors of aspiration in people with SMA, because it can cause complications such as pneumonia and breathing difficulties. These signs include:

  • Coughing or choking, which can signal reflux of stomach contents back up into the esophagus and then into the airways;
  • Vomiting (gastrointestinal disorders increase the risk of aspiration);
  • Cold or respiratory diseases, which usually make chewing and swallowing more difficult in people with SMA.

Some people who aspirate food or beverages while eating may not show signs such as coughing or choking. This is called silent aspiration and is most common in people with SMA who have frequent respiratory problems, even when there are no other signs such as nasal congestion or runny nose.

How can aspiration be prevented?

Avoiding certain foods can reduce the risk of aspiration in people with SMA. These include foods that are difficult to chew and hard to swallow, such as large or tough pieces of meat and sticky foods like thick cheese spreads or peanut butter. Clear, thin liquids like water or juice should also be avoided. Slightly thicker drinks like milkshakes should be chosen instead.

SMA News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website.