The Cranial Nerves and the Swallow
The Cranial Nerves and the Swallow

The Cranial Nerves and the Swallow

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Handout for speech-language pathologists that defines the 5 most important cranial nerves as related to swallowing problems.

I recently moved into a new place and spent the better part of my time rubbing the side of my wrist, wondering what in the world was causing it to shriek out in pain every time I attempted to lift a heavy box.

I brushed it away, thinking I had strained it.

It wasn’t until my OT friend told me about the ulnar nerve that it dawned on me: For the past seven years, my pinky and ring finger have gone numb because somewhere between my shoulder and the tip of those two fingers, the ulnar nerve has become trapped. Squeezed. Stuck. The wrist pain was a sign it was only getting worse.

It was such a simple revelation, and yet it drastically changed how I saw the problem. Suddenly it wasn’t some mysterious tweak or sprain. It was a specific nerve with a specific problem that could be directly addressed. I went and saw a physical therapist and am doing exercises every day to release the pathway of this nerve.

What if our clients felt this same understanding and insight about their cranial nerves? Specifically, the cranial nerves as related to swallowing?



The whole swallow mechanism is underrated. It is what allows us to wake up to that first delicious cup of coffee. Toast our family with champagne when life is full and ripe with possibilities. Take the ibuprofen to get rid of the headache. Enjoy the flavors of rich Thanksgiving pies. And yet, we mostly go through our lives without knowing how exactly it is that food is safely making its way from our mouths, past our lungs, and to our stomachs.

Until something goes wrong.

It is up to us, as SLPs, to provide as many visuals as we can to make the swallow as concrete and measurable as possible. Whether we are attaching electrodes to the muscles, cheering on a set of Masakos, or doing puckers/smiles until the cows come home, without laying out a concrete way to visualize and understand how the swallow works, we cannot expect people to truly do the work required to make it better.

This 8.5x11 handout is designed to clearly define the 5 most important cranial nerves as related to swallowing and outlines specific problems that may occur due to damage along the pathway of these nerves.

TECH SPECS: Digital download (3.8 MB). JPG format. 1 page, 8.5 x 11 inches. High resolution (300 dpi).

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