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Ann Oncol. 2004 Mar;15(3):383-8.

Dysphagia following chemoradiation for locally advanced head and neck cancer.

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  • 1Radiation Oncology, VA North Texas Health Care System, Dallas 75216, USA.



To assess the prevalence, severity and morbidity of dysphagia following concurrent chemoradiation for head and neck cancer.


Patients who underwent chemotherapy and radiation for head and neck malignancies were evaluated for their ability to resume oral feeding following treatment. Modified barium swallow (MBS) studies were performed if the patients complained of dysphagia or if there was clinical suspicion of aspiration. The severity of dysphagia was graded on a scale of 1-7. If significant abnormalities were found, swallowing studies were repeated until resolution of dysphagia.


Between March 1999 and May 2002, 55 patients with locally advanced head and neck cancer underwent concurrent chemotherapy and radiation. Aspiration pneumonia was observed in eight patients, three during treatment and five following treatment. Five patients died from pneumonia. Two patients developed respiratory failure requiring intubation as a complication of pneumonia. At a median follow-up of 17 months (range 6-48 months), 25 patients (45%) developed severe dysphagia requiring prolonged tube feedings for more than 3 months (22 patients) or repeated dilatations (three patients). Among 33 patients who underwent MBS following treatment, 12 patients (36%) had silent aspiration (grade 6-7 dysphagia). Thirteen patients (39%) developed grade 4-5 dysphagia which required prolonged enteral nutritional support to supplement their oral intake. Most patients had severe weight loss (0-21 kg) during treatment, likely due in part to mucositis in the orodigestive tube.


Dysphagia is a common, debilitating and potentially life-threatening sequela of concurrent chemoradiation for head and neck malignancy. Physicians should be aware that the clinical manifestations of aspiration may be unreliable and insidious, because of the depressed cough reflex. Modified and traditional barium swallows should be performed following treatment to assess the safety of oral feeding and the structural integrity of the pharynx and esophagus. Patients with severe dysphagia may benefit from rehabilitation. Tube feeding should be continued for those with aspiration.

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