Swallowing Difficulties after Spinal Surgery

AHC icon onlySwallowing difficult (dysphagia) is a common complication of spinal surgery.  Studies suggest that as many as 60 percent of patients experience some difficulty swallowing within the first two or three weeks after surgery.  Patients who received an anterior approach (through the front of the neck) are more likely to experience dysphagia.

Previous thought was that the dysphagia was caused by the breathing tube inserted during surgery.  Current thinking is that the swallow is affected by the moving and repositioning of the swallowing muscles and structures during surgery.  The anterior approach requires most of the swallow muscles and nerves to be moved out of the way to get to the spine.

Recent research has focused on identifying additional risk factors to help predict which patients may experience swallowing disruption.  Several researchers have identified that post-surgical dysphagia is more likely to occur in females, those patients who smoke and patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Luckily, this type of dysphagia is usually temporary.  If you are having spinal surgery, understanding your risk and planning ahead for possible swallowing complication may make your overall recuperation and recovery easier.  If you do feel your swallowing was affected, your healthcare provider may refer you to a swallow therapist to assess and develop an exercise program for your swallow muscles as well as help you better understand and manage your swallowing difficulty.

About Kerry Winget

Kerry Winget, AuD, CCC-SLP/A is a licensed speech language pathologist at St. Agnes Hospital. She has been working with adults in the medical setting for over 15 years. She has special interest in swallowing disorders and treatment. She recently earned her 9th Award for Continuing Education (ACE) from the American Speech and Hearing Association.

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