About Swallowing with Head and Neck Cancer

An exam with a speech pathologist

How can a Speech Pathologist help you?

Many people are a little confused when they are having swallowing problems and their doctor refers them to a speech pathologist. But in the medical community, speech pathologists are experts in swallowing disorders that involve the mouth or throat. You use the same anatomical mechanism for talking that you do for swallowing, and it is this mechanism that the speech pathologist knows very well. Speech pathologists are specially trained in therapeutic exercises and techniques to rehabilitate swallowing.

The speech pathologist will evaluate your swallowing by examining the strength and movement of the muscles of your mouth and throat. The clinician can watch and feel the strength of your swallow and observe for any signs of difficulty. In many cases, the speech pathologist will take you to the x-ray department to make a video of your swallowing to analyze how different foods move through your mouth and throat. From this information, the speech pathologist can then make recommendations as to when you should start eating, what types of foods would be best to try, what strategies or precautions you need, and what exercises or therapy you could do to improve your ability to swallow.

Your speech pathologist is available at any time during your treatment program to talk with you. If you have questions about swallowing or about speech prior to having your surgery or starting radiation therapy, you can meet with the speech pathologist to talk about your questions. Your surgeon will probably ask the speech pathologist to evaluate your swallowing after your surgery to be sure you are ready to eat safely and comfortably, and many swallowing therapy programs begin after surgery. If you are having radiation therapy, intensive swallowing therapy may be put on hold during the radiation treatments although you may be given some maintenance exercises to do. Once radiation has ended, the swallowing therapy can pick back up again. The amount of therapy needed is highly variable from person to person.

The speech pathologist working in the Virginia Mason Otolaryngology Department in Seattle can be reached at (206) 223-6374.