Swallowing Difficulty | Cervicogenic dysphagia
Ross Hauser, MD | Caring Medical Regenerative Medicine Clinics, Fort Myers, Florida
David N. Woznica, MD | Caring Medical Regenerative Medicine Clinics, Oak Park, Illinois
Katherine L. Worsnick, MPAS, PA-C | Caring Medical Regenerative Medicine Clinics, Fort Myers, Florida
Danielle R. Steilen-Matias, MMS, PA-C | Caring Medical Regenerative Medicine Clinics, Oak Park, Illinois
Treating Cervical Spine Instability is treating swallowing difficulties
- In this article we will discuss the problems of swallowing difficulties as they relate to diagnosis of cervical spine disorder or cervical instability caused by weakened, torn, damaged ligaments in the neck.
- Cervical instability in the neck has been linked to swallowing difficulties, diagnosed as cervicogenic dysphagia.
- Cervicogenic dysphagia is not a problem treated in isolation, it is one of a myriad of symptoms related to neck pain and neck hypermobility.
When a patient comes into our clinic with problems of swallowing difficulties, the swallowing difficulties are usually not a problem in isolation. While patients may tell us of their swallowing difficulties, most come in with primary complaints of neck pain or neck instability, whiplash associated disorders, or post-concussion syndrome. Swallowing difficulties may be accompanied by headaches, dizziness, hearing problems, severe muscle spams in the neck, to name but just a few symptoms.
Swallowing difficulty, involves the sensation that food is stuck in the throat or upper chest. This sensation may be perceived either high in the neck or lower down, behind the sternum, or breastbone. Swallowing difficulty can become a serious problem among the elderly. The symptoms the patients describe are usually extremely debilitating and the patient often tells us that they are at the “end of their rope.” A feeling of abandonment by the medical community is also common complaint.
“If she held her head still she was able to swallow”
Swallowing difficulties and bone spurs
There is not much research in the medical community that focuses solely on swallowing difficulties in relationship to cervical spine instability. But there are many clues that clearly makes a connection.
In the April 2017 issue of the Journal of bodywork and movement therapies, a combined team of researchers from the University of Padova and the University of Bologna in Italy documented a case history of a young female patient with swallowing difficulties.(1)
- The patient complained of pain on the neck and swallowing dysfunction that was reduced by means of isometric contraction of cervical muscles. Isometric contraction is a routine exercise where the muscle and joint are held in a static position.
- In other words, the patient was able to find a position where if she held her head still she was able to swallow. If she stabilized her neck, she could swallow.
In this case study, the doctors performed an MRI that revealed an anterior C5-C6 disc protrusion associated with a lesion of the anterior longitudinal ligament. Barium radiograph showed a small anterior cervical osteophyte (bone spur) at C6 level.
Conclusion: Diagnostic hypothesis was a combination of cervical disc dysfunction associated with C6 osteophyte and reduced functional stability AND a ligament tear.
- So we have a clue, ligament tear, cervical neck instability causes swallowing difficulties. Stabilize the neck, you can swallow.
Swallowing difficulties and Diffuse idiopathic skeletal hyperostosis
Similarly, Cervicogenic dysphagia can be brought on by diffuse idiopathic skeletal hyperostosis, (DISH) a condition where the cervical ligaments and their attachments to the vertebrae (the entheses) undergo calcification and ossification. In general terms, the soft tissue has calcified or turned into bone spurs. The bone spurs cause esophageal obstruction. Aging patients, men more so than women are susceptible to swallowing difficulties related to diffuse idiopathic skeletal hyperostosis.
Diffuse idiopathic skeletal hyperostosis is a more common disorder than some doctors thought. Doctors in the Netherlands issued this warning in The Spine Journal:
“Diffuse idiopathic skeletal hyperostosis as a cause of dysphagia and/or airway obstruction may be an increasing and underappreciated phenomenon.”(2)
Diffuse idiopathic skeletal hyperostosis can be brought on by degenerative wear and tear, as mentioned above, as a result of age or overuse. As with any bone spur, bone spurs form to help stabilize a joint. Diffuse idiopathic skeletal hyperostosis develops to stabilize cervical instability by turning the soft tissue attachments that are failing, into bony attachments. This unfortunately distorts the cervical spine and leads to various cervical related symptoms beyond swallowing difficulties.
- Another clue linking the cervical ligaments to swallowing difficulties.
Swallowing difficulties: A problem of autonomic nervous system dysfunction?
Swallowing difficulty may also be due to autonomic nervous system dysfunction that may be caused Barré-Lieou Syndrome, a condition in which the autonomic nervous system of the head and neck area is not working correctly. In many patients we see, there is a link between cervical spine instability and the onset of Barré-Lieou Syndrome.
Swallowing is a very complex process that involves the mouth, throat and esophagus. Many nerves and muscles affect the correct functioning of these parts, and while part of the process of swallowing is under voluntary control, much of it is involuntary. Cervical spine instability can affect both the voluntary and involuntary response.
- Another clue linking the cervical ligaments to swallowing difficulties.
Swallowing difficulties: A problem of age?
The muscles and support structures of the neck make for good swallowing function. As we age degenerative disease can affect the muscles, tendons and ligaments that help us swallow.
A new study in the journal Current opinion in otolaryngology & head and neck surgery (3) suggest that surgeons and clinicians explore multidisciplinary perspectives and initiatives, (it is not just one thing causing the problem and you may need to explore “innovative” and multiple treatments).
One thing that the researchers suggest as innovative is swallowing exercises. This is to build up the muscular structure of the swallowing mechanism. To build up muscle you need strong tendons and ligaments. You have to deal with the problem of cervical instability.
- Another clue linking the cervical ligaments to swallowing difficulties. It should be clear at this point that there is a link. The next step is how cervical instability affects posture.
Swallowing difficulties: A problem of posture?
In the medical journal Dysphagia, (4) researchers discussed the relationship between oropharyngeal (back of the throat) dysphagia and its relationship to cervical spine disorders and postural disturbances due to either congenital or acquired disorders.
They write: “The etiology and diagnosis of dysphagia are analyzed, focusing on cervical spine pathology associated with dysphagia as severe cervical spine disorders and postural disturbances largely have been held accountable for deglutition (swallowing) disorders.”
- and osteophytes are the primary focus in finding the link between cervical spine disorders and dysphagia.
“It is important for physicians to be knowledgeable about what triggers oropharyngeal dysphagia in cases of cervical spine and postural disorders. Moreover, the optimum treatment for dysphagia, including the use of therapeutic maneuvers during deglutition, neck exercises, and surgical treatment, (should be discussed with patients).”
Swallowing difficulties: TMJ Involvement with cervical instability
In the Journal of oral and maxillofacial surgery : The official journal of the American Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons, (5) doctors looked at oral stage dysphagia (swallowing difficulties that begin in the mouth) with potential effects on function and patient well-being.
To examine effects of function in TMJ patients, the doctors looked at 178 TMJ/TMD temporomandibular joint dysfunction patients.
- Of the 178 TMD participants, 99% reported at least one symptom or sign of oral stage dysphagia.
- Individuals presenting with
- subluxation of the jaw (80%),
- degenerative joint disorder (67%),
- and myofascial pain disorder (40%) reported oral stage dysphagia most frequently.
There is no doubt that TMJ patients suffer from swallowing difficulties, but do they have cervical instability as well and is this making swallowing difficulties more challenging?
In many patients we see with primary problems related to neck pain and cervical instability we see problems of TMJ. In many patients that we see with problems of TMJ, we see cervical neck pain. Surprising despite the research suggesting the connection, many patients were not made aware that their jaw pain could be a problem originating in the neck.
In the medical journal Clinical Oral Investigations, (6) oral surgeons in Belgium made a connection.
They conducted a study looking for possible correlations between clinical signs of temporomandibular disorders (TMD) and cervical spine disorders.
- Thirty-one consecutive patients with symptoms of TMD and 30 controls underwent a standardized clinical examination of the masticatory system, evaluating range of motion of the mandible, temporomandibular joint (TMJ) function and pain of the TMJ and masticatory muscles.
- Afterwards subjects were referred for clinical examination of the cervical spine, evaluating segmental limitations, tender points upon palpation of the muscles, hyperalgesia and hypermobility.
- The results indicated that segmental limitations (especially at the C0-C3 levels) and tender points (especially in the sternocleidomastoideus and trapezius muscles) are significantly more present in patients with TMJ than the control subjects
There is a problem with the chewing muscles that is making problems in your cervical spine and for your entire posture
Swallowing difficulties are hard to manage because in some patient cases, possible yours, you have to continuously “peel the onion,” to get to the true root cause of the patient’s problem. Swallowing difficulties may not be a primary complaint of a patient, but one of many complaints they have that seeming have no answer. Here we are examining whether the muscles of the jaw are negatively impacting your cervical spine and if your swallowing difficulties, indeed many problems you are suffering with, may be from this connection.
In the European journal of orthodontics, (7) doctors in Japan made a connection:
- In this study, the doctors compared the mandibular stress distribution and displacement of the cervical spine. In simple terms, how TMJ instability and hypermobility of the jaw negatively effected the cervical spine.
- What did they find? ” (an) imbalance between the right and left masticatory muscles antagonistically act on displacement of the cervical spine, i.e. the morphological and functional characteristics in patients with mandibular lateral displacement may play a compensatory role in posture control.”
What? The TMJ altered your posture by stressing your cervical spine? Isn’t posture a problem of swallowing difficulties? Isn’t posture a problem of everything?
Surgery for swallowing difficulties – high risk – low reward?
When you look at the research above, especially when the bulk of it comes from oral and neurosurgeons, it is not difficult to see that surgery for swallowing difficulties is a high risk – low reward procedure. Let’s be clear though, there are times when surgery is necessary, especially if there is anatomical deformity that is possibly life threatening.
Now what about the bone spurs?
Using exercise to help swallowing difficulties in cervical instability patients is clearly superior to surgery for patients desiring to avoid surgery. The problems of surgical correction ofswallowing difficulties from bony overgrowth (osteophytes or bone spurs) is documented in this research from Turkish surgeons from the Gulhane Military Medical Academy and Gelibolu Military Hospital.
This study was presented in The Journal of craniofacial surgery (8) and discusses the advantages and disadvantages of anterior cervical osteophytes surgical procedures. (A frontal incision into the throat area or the mouth to get at the cervical bone spurs).
The doctors looked at the operative records of anterior cervical osteophytes patients who did not benefit from conventional treatments and underwent osteophytectomy (bone spur removal).
Five patients were operated with the transcervical anterolateral method (incision into the neck), and 3 patients were operated with the transoral procedure (through the mouth). Those using the transcervical method were likely to encounter complications. Although the transoral procedure is much safer, the patients may face postoperative pain, long healing time, and morbidities as hematoma, cervical instability, and infection after surgery.
While both surgeries can improve swallowing difficulties, the price of complications and further instability in the future was warned about. The researchers did suggest that Transoral approach is not recommended due to slow healing times and postoperative pain, although it creates easier access to the spine.
Treating Cervical Spine Instability is treating swallowing difficulties
We will see many patients who were told about surgeries, such as those spoke above and offered surgical consultation for his/her problem with swallowing if there is a concern the problem is due to a diverticulum or outpouching of the throat. However, the surgical recommendation is often compromised by the difficulty in diagnosis.
Conservative treatments may be offered to see if the surgery is warranted or, better yet, avoided.
Recommendations to relieve the symptoms may include a bland diet, eliminating caffeine or alcohol from the diet, modifying the consistency of foods to make them easier to swallow, elevating the head while sleeping, or therapy to strengthen the swallowing muscles, particularly when the swallowing difficulty seems to be the result of neurological disorder. In certain situations drugs that slow the production of stomach acid, muscle relaxants or antacids may be prescribed.
However, the truth is, a person suffering from this often painful and dehabilitiating condition may be seen by numerous specialists and yet find no resolution for the symptoms and, thus, no understanding as to why the condition exists at all.
In our office we perform physical examination and use our Digital Motion X-ray machine, described in the video above to get at the cause of the problem rather than to simply seek to treat the symptoms. This helps us determine, if, as often, we are looking at a dysfunction of the autonomic nervous system, a problem of posture, a problem of degeneartive aging, a problem possibly of TMJ related challanges.
Swallowing difficulties as well as a host of other symptoms including neck, eye and facial pain, cervical vertigo, dizziness and ringing in the ears, is very treatable using Prolotherapy to the neck ligaments.
Prolotherapy is, in our opinion, the safest and most effective non-surgical treatment for repairing ligament damage. It stimulates the body to repair the damaged and weakened areas by inducing a mild inflammatory reaction. Since the body heals by inflammation, Prolotherapy stimulates healing.
As mentioned earlier, swallowing difficulty may also be due to an autonomic nervous system dysfunction. While the actual cause of this dysfunction may be elusive, Neural Therapy to the head and neck area has been known to help with swallowing difficulties. Neural therapy involves the injections of anesthetics to help the nerves reset themselves. For example, if the patient had previously had surgery in the mouth or neck area, the scars would be injected as they can act as “interference fields” to the autonomic nervous system.
If this article has helped you understand problems of swallowing difficulties and you would like to explore Prolotherapy as a possible remedy, ask for help and information from our specialists
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