Complete hypopharyngeal obstruction by mucosal adhesions: A complication of intensive chemoradiation for advanced head and neck cancer

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32 Scopus citations


Background. Severe swallowing dysfunction is the dominant long-term complication observed in patients treated for head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC) with treatment protocols using intensive concurrent chemotherapy with radiation therapy (chemo/XRT). We identified a subset of these patients, who were seen with complete obstruction of the hypopharynx distal to the site of the primary cancer, and in whom we postulate that the obstruction was caused by separable mucosal adhesions rather than obliteration by a mature fibrous stricture. Methods. Seven patients were referred to the senior author with a diagnosis of complete hypopharyngeal obstruction between 1992 and 2001. The diagnosis was confirmed by barium swallow imaging and/or endoscopy before referral in all patients. Patients underwent recanalization by passing a Jesberg esophagoscope under general anesthesia, followed by serial dilations and intensive swallowing therapy. Patient charts were reviewed retrospectively after institutional review board approval. Results. All seven patients were successfully recanalized. No patient had a perforation or other significant complication related to the recanalization procedure or subsequent dilations. Five of the seven patients showed improvement in swallowing at some point after the initial procedure, but just two patients recovered sufficiently to have their gastrostomy tube removed permanently. Conclusions. We conclude that complete hypopharyngeal obstruction secondary to mucosal adhesions is one cause of gastrostomy tube dependence in patients who have been treated with chemo/XRT for HNSCC. It is a difficult problem to treat, but most patients can recover useful swallowing function without undergoing laryngectomy or major surgical reconstruction. The postulated pathophysiology has implications for prevention as well as treatment.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)663-670
Number of pages8
JournalHead and Neck
Issue number8
StatePublished - Aug 1 2006


  • Adhesions
  • Hypopharyngeal obstruction
  • Radiation chemotherapy

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Otorhinolaryngology


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