[Editor’s Note: This article is written in response to a great question from one of our dysphagia community members asking if there is evidence to support the claim that oral motor exercises strengthen the swallow function, noting that she was unable to find peer-reviewed research articles on this topic.]
If you suffer from dysphagia, there’s a chance that you’ve been recommended to perform “oral motor exercises,” which is essentially physical therapy for your muscles involved in swallowing, especially the tongue. These exercises are often recommended to patients with a variety of dysphagia etiologies, including head and neck cancers, those who have suffered a stroke, and even patients with Parkinson’s disease. There is about a dozen different oral motor exercises that speech-language pathologists and physicians will sometimes recommend to their patients. For a list of these exercises, click here. Please keep in mind that these exercises should be performed only under the recommendation and direct guidance of your healthcare professional.
The big question that every patient wants to know is: If I do these exercises as recommended, will my swallowing get better?
Presumably, if a healthcare professional recommends treatment, it is because it will lead to improvement. But is there evidence that proves these exercises are effective?
The short answer is, no, there is not much available evidence that strongly supports the claim that oral motor exercises lead to improved swallowing. However, a lack of evidence does not mean there is no benefit from performing these exercises. It simply means that we do not have existing evidence showing whether there is a benefit or not. So before you close this page and abandon your oral motor exercise regimen, consider the following.
Speech-language pathologists are required to adhere to the American Speech-Language and Hearing Association’s (ASHA) Code of Ethics, which includes providing the highest quality services available to patients, and beginning in the 90s, this now includes “evidence-based practice.” ASHA defines evidence-based practice as the integration of the best available research with clinical expertise and patient values.
Speech-language pathologists recommend oral motor exercises based on the best available evidence that supports this treatment and perhaps to a greater extent, on their clinical expertise. Experienced speech-language pathologists will likely have a good idea of when oral motor exercises may be beneficial to a patient with a certain type of dysphagia based on previous patients that they, or their colleagues, have worked with. Clinical expertise is a part of evidence-based practice that should not be undervalued.
Now you’re probably wondering, is there any evidence that supports oral motor exercises?
Yes, there is some research that supports the use of oral motor exercises, but few efficacy studies have been conducted, meaning that there is just not enough high-quality evidence to make a claim one way or the other on how and to what extent these exercises should be incorporated into the treatment of dysphagia. Click here to download a 42-page systematic review(1) of the best available research discussing the use of oral motor exercises to improve one’s swallowing function.
And certainly don’t lose hope. There is a great deal of ongoing research in this area, including the development and testing of new and existing equipment designed to assist with oral motor strengthening. If this is a topic of interest to you, you may wish to consider joining us on December 2nd for a Webinar presentation by Dr. Joanne Robbins, a leading researcher in the field of dysphagia. She will discuss her latest research using the SwallowSTRONG® device, which is a mouthpiece designed to increase tongue pressures to improve swallowing. Click here to learn more about her Webinar presentation.
(1) Lazarus, C., Clark, H., Arvedson, J., Schooling, T., & Fymark, T. (2011). Evidence-Based Systematic Review: Effects of Oral Sensory-Motor Treatment on Swallowing in Adults. American Speech Language Hearing Association.
Disclaimer: Oral motor exercises are not appropriate for all patients with dysphagia. Oral motor exercises, and all dysphagia treatment options, are to be used under the explicit guidance and recommendation of your physician or speech-language pathologist. It is necessary to consult with your medical care provider before using these exercises. If you feel pain or experience unusual symptoms while performing any of these exercises, stop the exercise immediately and consult your provider before any further use.
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