Swallowing impairments (dysphagia) represent the highest functional morbidity in veteran patients treated for oropharyngeal cancers with either surgical approaches followed by radiation or with more recent organ-preservation protocols. The nature of the impairments is often resistive to treatment and results in life-long health consequences and high cost burden on the VA health system. Recent preliminary data have linked alterations in the otherwise highly stable respiratory-swallowing phase pattern relationships to the swallowing impairment and penetration/aspiration and in this patient group. The immediate goal of this clinical trial is to test the effect of a novel respiratory-swallow intervention on swallowing impairment and penetration/aspiration in a cohort of chronically dysphagic veterans following treatment for oropharyngeal cancer. Patients presenting with a """"""""non-optimal"""""""" respiratory-swallow phase pattern during liquid swallows and measurable swallowing impairment will learn an """"""""optimal"""""""" physiologic pattern that facilitates both airway protective and mechanical advantages during swallowing. The broad goal of this research is to develop ideal respiratory- swallowing phase training methods and regimens that alone or combined with traditional swallowing treatments improve swallowing function in the acute phases of recovery and improve long term patient outcome. Our intention is to use these preliminary data to motivate a larger clinical trial to compare the effect of respiratory-swallow phase training with other evidenced based methods of swallowing treatment and expand the approach to other patient groups that have indications of respiratory- swallow phase impairments (e.g. pulmonary disease and stroke) contributing to impaired swallowing function.

Public Health Relevance

Cancers of the head and neck require surgical, radiation, and chemotherapy treatments that are intended to cure the disease. These treatments have toxic effects on muscles and structures that are necessary to swallow safely and efficiently. The resulting swallowing problems (dysphagia) often remain chronic for Veterans and interfere with their ability to eat and drink. The cost burden to the VA health system is high. There is an urgent need to develop rehabilitative treatments that lessen these burdens. The proposed research is designed to test a novel swallowing therapy that includes the coordination of breathing with swallowing. Our study will train medically and surgically treated, chronically dysphagic Veterans with histories of oropharyngeal cancer in a novel therapy that involves both swallowing and respiratory systems. If the therapy is found to be effective, the long term goal of the project is to extend the study to a multi-site, clinical trial and test the longstanding effect of this treatment compared to other swallowing therapies on swallowing function, QOL and cost.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
Veterans Affairs (VA)
Non-HHS Research Projects (I01)
Project #
Application #
Study Section
Sensory Systems/Communication (RRD3)
Project Start
Project End
Budget Start
Budget End
Support Year
Fiscal Year
Total Cost
Indirect Cost
Ralph H Johnson VA Medical Center
United States
Zip Code
Martin-Harris, Bonnie; Garand, Kendrea L Focht; McFarland, David (2017) Optimizing Respiratory-Swallowing Coordination in Patients With Oropharyngeal Head and Neck Cancer. Perspect ASHA Spec Interest Groups 2:103-110
McFarland, D H; Martin-Harris, B; Fortin, A-J et al. (2016) Respiratory-swallowing coordination in normal subjects: Lung volume at swallowing initiation. Respir Physiol Neurobiol 234:89-96