The objective of the study was to comprehensively characterise dysphagia in Friedreich ataxia (FRDA) and identify predictors of penetration/aspiration during swallowing. We also investigated the psychosocial impact of dysphagia on individuals with FRDA. Sixty participants with FRDA were screened for dysphagia using a swallowing quality of life questionnaire (Swal-QOL) and case history. Individuals reporting dysphagia underwent a standardised oromotor assessment (Frenchay Dysarthria Assessment, 2, FDA-2) and videofluoroscopic study of swallowing (VFSS). Data were correlated with disease parameters (age at symptom onset, age at assessment, disease duration, FXN intron 1 GAA repeat sizes, and Friedreich Ataxia Rating Scale (FARS) score).
Ninety-eight percent (59/60) of participants reported dysphagia, of whom 35 (58.3%) underwent FDA-2 assessment, and 38 (63.3%) underwent VFSS. Laryngeal, respiratory, and tongue dysfunction was observed on the FDA-2. A Penetration-Aspiration Scale score above 3 (deemed significant airway compromise based on non-clinical groups) was observed on at least one consistency in 13/38 (34.2%) participants. All of those who aspirated (10/38, 26.3%) did so silently, with no overt signs of airway entry such as reflexive cough.
Significant correlations were observed between dysphagic symptoms and disease duration and severity. No reliable predictors of penetration or aspiration were identified. Oropharyngeal dysphagia is commonly present in individuals with FRDA and worsens with disease duration and severity. Individuals with FRDA are at risk of aspiration at any stage of the disease and should be reviewed regularly. Instrumental analysis remains the only reliable method to detect aspiration in this population. Dysphagia significantly affects the quality of life of individuals with FRDA.
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