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Exercises Help Maintain Ability to Swallow in Head and Neck Cancer Patients

Patients being treated for head and neck cancers can experience both short-term and long-term difficulty with swallowing (dysphagia). Dysphagia can cause serious quality-of-life issues including:

·  Pain with swallowing

·  Aspiration of food, with the potential to cause a lung infection called aspiration pneumonia

·  Gagging or choking when attempting to swallow

·  Weight loss and health issues from lack of nutrition

Severe cases may result in the need for nutritional support through Enteral Nutrition (EN) or Parenteral Nutrition (PN or TPN).

A study recently published in the journal Otolaryngology -- Head and Neck Surgery reported that patients who followed a swallowing preservation protocol (SPP) of exercises before, during and after treatments for head and neck cancers were less likely to have unwanted side effects involving swallowing function. The conclusion states, "A swallow preservation protocol appears to help maintain or improve swallow function in head and neck cancer patients undergoing RT (radiation therapy) or CRT (chemoradiotherapy). Patients who are able to comply with swallow exercises are less likely to worsen their diet, receive a G-tube, or develop stenosis"

The Oral Cancer Foundation confirms this theory by stating, "Specific swallowing exercises have been shown to reduce these effects and improve prognosis for oral intake. These include jaw range of motion, tongue base range of motion exercises, and effortful swallow exercises, tongue holding maneuver, Mendelsohn maneuver, and super supraglottic swallow. Patients are encouraged to practice these exercises daily during and after treatment since effects of chemoradiation can occur long after treatment completion."

The following links describe specific exercises designed to avoid or improve dysphagia:

Please note: Patients should discuss changes in swallowing function with their physician and only perform exercises under the supervision of their medical/oncology team.

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