CLINICAL TRIAL
CONTROLLED CLINICAL TRIAL
JOURNAL ARTICLE
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Electrical stimulation for swallowing disorders caused by stroke.

BACKGROUND: An estimated 15 million adults in the United States are affected by dysphagia (difficulty swallowing). Severe dysphagia predisposes to medical complications such as aspiration pneumonia, bronchospasm, dehydration, malnutrition, and asphyxia. These can cause death or increased health care costs from increased severity of illness and prolonged length of stay. Existing modalities for treating dysphagia are generally ineffective, and at best it may take weeks to months to show improvement. One common conventional therapy, application of cold stimulus to the base of the anterior faucial arch, has been reported to be somewhat effective. We describe an alternative treatment consisting of transcutaneous electrical stimulation (ES) applied through electrodes placed on the neck.

OBJECTIVE: Compare the effectiveness of ES treatment to thermal-tactile stimulation (TS) treatment in patients with dysphagia caused by stroke and assess the safety of the technique.

METHODS: In this controlled study, stroke patients with swallowing disorder were alternately assigned to one of the two treatment groups (TS or ES). Entry criteria included a primary diagnosis of stroke and confirmation of swallowing disorder by modified barium swallow (MBS). TS consisted of touching the base of the anterior faucial arch with a metal probe chilled by immersion in ice. ES was administered with a modified hand-held battery-powered electrical stimulator connected to a pair of electrodes positioned on the neck. Daily treatments of TS or ES lasted 1 hour. Swallow function before and after the treatment regimen was scored from 0 (aspirates own saliva) to 6 (normal swallow) based on substances the patients could swallow during a modified barium swallow. Demographic data were compared with the test and Fisher exact test. Swallow scores were compared with the Mann-Whitney U test and Wilcoxon signed-rank test.

RESULTS: The treatment groups were of similar age and gender (p > 0.27), co-morbid conditions (p = 0.0044), and initial swallow score (p = 0.74). Both treatment groups showed improvement in swallow score, but the final swallow scores were higher in the ES group (p > 0.0001). In addition, 98% of ES patients showed some improvement, whereas 27% of TS patients remained at initial swallow score and 11% got worse. These results are based on similar numbers of treatments (average of 5.5 for ES and 6.0 for TS, p = 0.36).

CONCLUSIONS: ES appears to be a safe and effective treatment for dysphagia due to stroke and results in better swallow function than conventional TS treatment.

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