Strokes and other brain injuries can impair tongue movement, which invariably impairs the ability to swallow. The good news is that like all other muscles in the body, the tongue also has the ability to recover, at least partially, with appropriate exercise.
In fact, the efficacy of tongue exercises for dysphagia caused by stroke has been demonstrated by some studies. One study showed that 8 weeks of special tongue exercises induced significant improvements in swallowing and quality of life.
The exercises described below are meant to serve as a standard way of strengthening tongue function. For some people, these exercises will be fairly easy to do. For others, performing them may feel like running an Olympic marathon.
Regardless of how these exercises feel to you when you first try them, you should push yourself more and more each day. As each exercise becomes easier to do, you should set higher strength and repetition goals. In other words, as the exercises become easier to do, you should apply more strength to each repetition, or increase the number of repetitions.
- Open your mouth as wide as you can, and touch the tip of your tongue to you upper teeth or to the front of the palate. Do this for 3 to 5 seconds, and repeat 5 to 10 times.
- Again, open your mouth and touch the tip of your tongue to the back of the roof of your mouth. Keep your tongue back for 3 to 5 seconds, and repeat 5-10 times.
- Stick your tongue out as far as you can, and leave it there for approx 10 seconds. Do this 5 to 10 times.
- Bring the tip of the tongue to the very back of the roof of your mouth, and keep it there for about 10 seconds. Repeat this exercise 5 to 10 times.
- Move the tip of your tongue across the roof of your mouth from the very front (just behind your upper teeth) to the very back (to where the soft palate is located). Do this 10 times, bringing it as far back as possible each time. Repeat the exercise 5 to 10 times.
- Press the inside of each cheek with the tip of your tongue. Repeat the exercise 5 to 10 times.
- Stick your tongue out as far as you can. Using its tip, press up against a spoon or some other clean object. Do this for 5 seconds. Repeat this exercise 10 times.
Depending on your specific degree of dysfunction, you might or might not be able to do perform one or more of the exercises. But you must keep on trying. Push yourself each day.
Lazarus C. Tongue strength and exercise in healthy individuals and in head and neck cancer patients. Semin Speech Lang. 2006 Nov;27(4):260-7
Lori M. Burkhead, PhD, Christine M. Sapienza, PhD and John C. Rosenbek, PhD; Strength-Training Exercise in Dysphagia Rehabilitation: Principles, Procedures, and Directions for Future Research Dysphagia 22:251–265 (2007)
Robbins J, Kays SA, Gangnon RE, Hind JA, Hewitt AL, Gentry LR, Taylor; The effects of lingual exercise in stroke patients with dysphagia. AJ.Arch Phys Med Rehabil. 2007 Feb;88(2):150-8.