Swallowing and speech

Swallowing and speech difficulties can occur as consequences of head and neck cancer treatment, most notably surgery and radiotherapy.

Swallowing problems

Some of the swallowing difficulties that result from treatment to the head and neck area can be: [1]

  • Food that gets stuck in the throat.
  • Difficulty with the swallowing reflex.
  • Trouble moving food from the mouth to the throat.
  • Food getting stuck in the cheeks due to dry mouth (pocketing).
  • Coughing, choking or gagging when swallowing.

There are many treatments available to help with these issues. In fact, swallowing (eating & drinking) and exercises have been shown to improve swallowing function and prevent problems, especially if done before surgery or chemo. Other treatment options include: [1]

  • Electrical stimulation, which can be used in conjunction with exercises to maximize the effect of the exercises. This is not an option for everyone, so it’s important to discuss it with your healthcare providers.
  • Mouth-lubricating products, increasing consumption of liquids, and making dietary changes to cope with dry mouth.

Speech problems

Speech issues that may occur following treatment for head and neck cancer include:

  • Changes in lip and tongue mobility, resulting in imprecise speech.
  • Voice sounding strained, harsh, or breathy.
  • Changes in pitch and intensity.

Rehabilitation for speech changes will include techniques or exercises to slow down speech, speak louder, and use gestures. A speech-language pathologist can help you identify the best exercises for your specific needs. It can also be helpful for patients to learn to express their thoughts, ideas, and feelings more clearly. The practice of intelligent speech can help others understand what you are trying to say. These techniques can help develop more practical social skills, as well as greater self-esteem and independence. [2]


[1] https://www.oncolink.org/cancers/head-and-neck/side-effect-management-support-resources/speech-and-swallow

[2] http://www.cancer.ca/en/cancer-information/diagnosis-and-treatment/managing-side-effects/difficulty-swallowing/?region=on