Myofascial release and manual therapy are cutting-edge treatments for swallowing difficulty, particularly for patients who have been treated for head and neck cancer.
Why do patients have difficulty swallowing after cancer treatment?
Many patients who have been treated for head and neck cancer are able to adequately swallow immediately after their cancer treatment. However, over time some patients can develop tough scar tissue (called fibrosis) in the area that was radiated. This fibrosis may form years after cancer treatment and can result in difficulty swallowing.
There is a lot of movement in the mouth and throat during a normal swallow. This movement efficiently propels food and liquids through the throat and closes off the windpipe. After head and neck cancer treatment, this fibrosis may prevent the swallowing mechanism from moving as it should. When the swallowing mechanism doesn’t move as it was designed to, it results in food sticking in the throat and the windpipe not closing sufficiently.
Not only does the stiffness make swallowing difficult, but it also keeps the muscles from properly moving during exercise. Trying to exercise a stiff muscle can be like trying to exercise a muscle in a cast—it can’t be done. So, if the stiffness from fibrosis is not addressed, swallowing exercises may not be effective.
What can be done to help?
Myofascial release and manual therapy is similar to massage therapy and helps to loosen stiffness from fibrotic tissue. By using myofascial release on the throat and mouth, the movement of the swallowing muscles can be improved. This increase in movement also allows exercise to be more effective so that muscles can get stronger. The combination of improved movement and enhanced strength can significantly increase swallowing function.
Jen Carter has used myofascial release with her patients for years and has seen the tremendous benefit of adding this to therapy.
Jen presented a live webinar for the National Foundation of Swallowing Disorders on the topic of Myofascial Release and Manual Therapy in the Treatment of Dysphagia. The presentation was geared to both patients and medical professionals and a recording of it can be watched below:
My appointments with Jen were most productive. Not only did she show me exercises to strengthen the muscles used to swallow, she introduced deep tissue massage techniques that loosened the fibrotic tissue. The exercises and massage that Jen taught us have helped immensely.-Wayne B.
Working with Jen Carter has improved my condition greatly. I can now swallow many different types of foods and liquids, and my ability to swallow continues to improve. We found that the massage therapy reduces the swelling and loosens the muscles in my neck making it possible for me to swallow-Jim D.