Background: Extensive surgery and chemo/radiation therapy (C/RT) to manage head and neck cancer (HNC) patients affects their ability to swallow food and liquids, risk of aspiration and greatly influences their quality of life (QOL). Objectives: Ascertain the effectiveness of swallowing exercises on improving swallowing function, performance status, mouth opening, risk of aspiration/penetration and QOL in HNC patients. Design: Systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials Data sources: PubMed, Ovid-Medline, Embase, Cochrane Library, CINAHL and Web of Science and included all available RCTs. Review methods: We followed the PRISMA guidelines and standard methods for conducting a systematic review and meta-analysis. Comprehensive Meta-analysis 3.0 using the random effects model was used for data analysis. Results: In total, 19 RCTs with 1100 participants were identified and included in the current review. Swallowing exercises had significant small effect on swallowing function 0.33 (95%CI = 0.00–0.65) and moderate effect on mouth opening 0.60 (95%CI = 0.21–0.99) immediately after intervention and small effect at 6-month follow-up 0.46 (95%CI = 0.11–0.81). However, non-significant effects were observed on risk of aspiration/penetration, performance status and all domains of QOL. Conclusion: Swallowing exercises demonstrated effectiveness in improving swallowing function and mouth opening in HNC patients undergoing multimodal treatment. This is the first comprehensive systematic review and meta-analysis of RCTs to assess the effect of swallowing exercises in HNC patients undergoing multimodal treatment. Nurses can play an important role in assisting the delivery of oropharyngeal swallowing exercises including jaw exercises, tongue exercises and swallowing maneuvers with assistance and guidance from speech pathologists to help improve HNC complications and QOL for HNC survivors.
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