University of Calgary


June 15, 2010

Spoonful of sugar doesn't always make the medicine go down

Alysa Hauck, 10—part of Bonnie Kaplan's study—taught her brother Jarid, 12, how to swallow pills.
Changing the tilt of your head when swallowing pills can make all the difference to a child's health.

Bonnie Kaplan, PhD, of the Faculty of Medicine and the Alberta Children's Hospital Research Institute for Child and Maternal Health published a study that finds that children who have never been able to swallow a whole pill can become successful by learning various head positions. Her study is published online in Paediatrics & Child Health.

"If a child with a chronic or acute illness, such as cancer or arthritis, cannot swallow a pill, it can be a huge problem. Some medications are very difficult to turn into liquid form, or taste horrible when they are liquid. There are cases where children cannot leave the hospital because they have to keep getting their medications through an IV or injections," says Kaplan, a research psychologist in the Behavioral Research Unit of the Department of Paediatrics at Alberta Children's Hospital.

Fabiola Hauck knows how stressful it can be for a child and their family when they cannot swallow pills. Her daughter, Alysa, has an autoimmune disorder, requiring about 10 different medications a day. As a young girl unable to swallow pills Alysa could not travel, sleep at a relative’s or even play at a friend's because of the need to refrigerate and keep track of all the different medications she was on. That all changed when she took part in Kaplan's study.

"It was so empowering for her to be able to swallow pills. It opened so many doors. We can take trips now, she can go to the park for the afternoon, she is invited to sleepover, just like any normal girl," says mom Fabiola.

Alysa was even able to teach her older brother Jarad how to swallow pills. Jarad has juvenile arthritis and needs to take medicine for his illness. Alysa used tic tacs to show Jarad how to swallow the pills, just as she was shown during the study.

"This is a case where something very simple can make such a huge difference in people's lives. Occasionally something comes up in health care where we don't need physician expertise, but it is a simple intervention that has broad implications for the lay public, like the Heimlich maneuver." says Kaplan.

This research and a training video showing techniques for swallowing pills are supported by the Alberta Children's Hospital Foundation.

Kaplan and her students are now working with ear, nose and throat physicians to study the dynamics of swallowing in various head positions. They are looking for adults who have no difficulty swallowing pills who might be interested in volunteering for this next study. If interested, please contact Lucas Badenduck at 403-999-0364, or contact Dr. Bonnie Kaplan at 403-955-7363.

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