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Swallowing Exercises Shown to Preserve Function in People with Head and Neck Cancer Receiving Radiation


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A study from UCLA’s Jonsson Com­prehensive Cancer Center has found that people with head and neck cancer receiv­ing radiation as part of their treatment were less likely to experience unwanted side effects such as worsening of diet, need for a feeding tube, or narrowing of the throat passage if they complied with a set of prescribed swallowing exercises during therapy.

The five-year study was led by Dr. Marilene Wang, JCCC member and professor-in-residence in the department of Head and Neck Surgery at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine in Los Angeles, CA. The study was pub­lished in the journal Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery.

Surgery and radiation have been the traditional treatments for head and neck cancer, but with the advent of improved and targeted chemotherapy, many types of this disease are treated with chemotherapy and radiation (chemoradiation) in the hope of preserv­ing the tissue and structure. Despite the sparing of critical tissue, however, pres­ervation does not always translate to normal, natural swallowing ability.

“The real benefit of this compliance is that patients benefit immediately after treatment and for a prolonged time afterward.”

Dr. Wang’s study was designed to evaluate the swallow preservation pro­tocol, in which survivors engaged in swallow therapy before, during, and after radiation treatment. The effectiveness of the swallow preservation protocol was measured by individuals’ continued abil­ity to swallow and how that affected their diets, whether they needed a feeding tube, and whether they developed nar­rowing of the throat, compared with a group of people who did not utilize the swallow preservation protocol.

Study participants’ swallowing abil­ity was assessed two weeks before their treatment. They were also given infor­mation about their cancer and what side effects they could expect, as well as an introduction of the swallowing exercise program. The exercises were designed to maintain the range of motion of mouth and neck muscles involved in swallowing and to counter the formation of excess tissue caused by the radiation, which contributes to loss of swallowing ability.

Among 85 participants, 57 completed the swallow preservation protocol and 28 did not. Swallow preservation exercises before and during radiation treatment appeared to maintain partici­pants’ ability to swallow. Those who completed the swallow preservation pro­tocol had a faster return to normal diet and prevented narrowing of the throat.

“Our results demonstrate that com­pliance with swallow therapy during radiation or chemoradiation treatment is beneficial to patients’ retaining their ability to swallow after treatment is over,” says Dr. Wang. “The real benefit of this compliance is that patients benefit immediately after treatment and for a prolonged time afterward.”

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For more information, visit American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery at

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, November/December 2013.