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Acta Neurol Scand. 2001 Apr;103(4):207-13.

Respiratory complications related to bulbar dysfunction in motor neuron disease.

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University of Wales College of Medicine, Department of Medicine (Neurology), Heath Park, Cardiff, CF4 4XN, United Kingdom.


Bulbar dysfunction resulting from corticobulbar pathway or brainstem neuron degeneration is one of the most important clinical problems encountered in motor neuron disease (MND) and contributes to various respiratory complications which are major causes of morbidity and mortality. Chronic malnutrition as a consequence of bulbar muscle weakness may have a considerable bearing on respiratory muscle function and survival. Abnormalities of the control and strength of the laryngeal and pharyngeal muscles may cause upper airway obstruction increasing resistance to airflow. Bulbar muscle weakness prevents adequate peak cough flows to clear airway debris. Dysphagia can lead to aspiration of microorganisms, food and liquids and hence pneumonia. MND patients with bulbar involvement commonly display an abnormal respiratory pattern during swallow characterized by inspiration after swallow, prolonged swallow apnoea and multiple swallows per bolus. Volitional respiratory function tests such as forced vital capacity can be inaccurate in patients with bulbofacial weakness and/or impaired volitional respiratory control. Bulbar muscle weakness with abundant secretions may increase the risk of aspiration and make successful non-invasive assisted ventilation more difficult. We conclude that an evaluation of bulbar dysfunction is an essential element in the assessment of respiratory dysfunction in MND.

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