Swallowing Problems (Dysphagia) After Head and Neck Cancer

What are swallowing problems after head and neck cancer?

People who have been treated for head and neck cancer, such as laryngeal cancer or oral cancer, often experience swallowing problems (dysphagia). The seriousness of the swallowing problem depends on the type and nature of the treatment, the size and location of the tumor, and the nature of any reconstruction.

What are some signs or symptoms of swallowing problems after head and neck cancer?

Individuals treated for head and neck cancer may experience any or all of the following swallowing problems:

  • the need to swallow many times to clear food from the mouth and throat
  • gurgly, wet-sounding voice after swallowing
  • coughing or choking
  • throat clearing while eating
  • pain and dryness when swallowing

How are swallowing problems after head and neck cancer diagnosed?

Speech-language pathologists (SLPs) typically see a person prior to medical or surgical intervention. The SLP will discuss possible changes in speech and swallowing. After the intervention, the SLP will evaluate the individual to determine the nature of any swallowing disorder and the appropriate diet for that person. The person may initially have a feeding tube through his or her nose until swelling from surgery goes down. If the SLP suspects a pharyngeal swallowing problem, additional studies may be recommended to determine the risk of aspiration.

What treatments are available for people with swallowing problems after head and neck cancer?

If the individual requires treatment for swallowing problems, the SLP can work with him or her to improve swallowing function.

Therapy may include:

  • muscle exercises
  • compensatory strategies
  • head postures ( e.g., chin tucks or turning the head to one side may help for a safe swallow)
  • designing a safe diet
  • safe swallow techniques

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What other organizations have information on swallowing problems after head and neck cancer?

This list is not exhaustive and inclusion does not imply endorsement of the organization or the content of the Web site by ASHA.

See Also:

Swallowing Problems After Head and Neck Cancer: Causes and Number

Swallowing Problems After Head and Neck Cancer: Benefits of Speech-Language Pathology Services

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