What is the role of tracheostomy in the etiology of dysphagia?

Updated: Mar 20, 2020
  • Author: Nam-Jong Paik, MD, PhD; Chief Editor: Elizabeth A Moberg-Wolff, MD  more...
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The frequency of aspiration in patients with a tracheostomy is 50-83%. The tracheostomy tube affects airway protection and swallowing in many ways. It impairs the glottic closure reflex, reduces subglottic pressure and laryngeal elevation, impairs hypopharyngeal and laryngeal sensation, and leads to disuse muscle atrophy.

Tracheostomy alters the essence of normal respiratory flow by diverting air through the neck instead of the pharynx, especially when an inflated tracheostomy tube cuff is present. The previous belief that an inflated tracheostomy tube cuff prevents aspiration of food has been refuted. An inflated cuff causes secretions to stagnate and collect above it, and these secretions can trickle down past the cuff and potentially lead to infection. Increasing the pressure of the cuff may lead to malacia, stenosis, fistula of the tracheal wall, or dragging of the cuff on the larynx as the larynx elevates during a swallow (laryngeal excursion).

Subglottic airway pressure is disrupted in patients with open tracheostomy tubes. The expiratory phase is shortened because the function of the normal vocal folds to maintain lung volumes throughout the physiologic prolongation of the expiratory phase is impaired. Furthermore, reduced subglottic pressure precludes effective coughing.

Superior and anterior laryngeal excursion during swallowing facilitates vertical closure of the laryngeal vestibule, assisting in airway protection and opening of the upper esophageal sphincter. The tracheostomy tube may attach the larynx to the surrounding neck tissue, anchoring it in position and reducing laryngeal elevation.

The tracheostomy desensitizes laryngeal and hypopharyngeal receptors, delaying onset of the laryngeal adductor reflex response and leading to aspiration. The sensory response, and hence the organization of the swallowing mechanism, can be improved by restoring the transglottic airflow by downsizing the tracheostomy tube, placing a fenestrated tube, or occluding the tracheostomy tube with a cap or with a 1-way speaking valve.

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