Radiation therapy is an effective part of treatment for many cancers that arise in the head and neck. But following radiation for these cancers some people develop difficulty swallowing (dysphagia), because the radiation can causes the muscles and mucosal lining of the mouth, throat, and esophagus to become stiff and deformed. Swallowing becomes effortful and painful. Dysphagia is usually categorized as oropharyngeal dysphagia or esophageal dysphagia. In oropharyngeal dysphagia people have difficulty moving food and liquids from the mouth to the throat and esophagus. In esophageal dsyphagia the esophagus becomes scarred and narrowed—this is called a stricture—and food has difficulty passing through the stricture.
Frequent episodes of liquids/solids going into the airway may lead to pneumonia.
Dysphagia therapy begins prior to the start of radiation treatment. SLPs provide exercises and strategies to help strengthen the muscles of swallowing, re-coordinate the timing of the swallow, and encourage a safe and effective swallow. There is an emphasis on a team based approach with collaboration with your laryngologist, oncologist, and oral surgeon.