A comparison of neuromuscular electrical stimulation and traditional therapy, versus traditional therapy in patients with longstanding dysphagia

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Purpose of review

Dysphagia in adults arises from a range of causes including acquired neurological disorders and some cancers. Previous research has suggested that treatment using neuromuscular electrical stimulation (NMES) when used in conjunction with conventional therapy is effective. This review describes the recent literature and a small prospective case series carried out in the United Kingdom. This study contributed to support National Institute of Clinical Excellence (NICE) guidance for clinicians who wish to include NMES in a rehabilitation programme for dysphagic patients, specifically with reference to safety and the impact on swallowing function of this intervention.

Recent findings

In 2014, the UK NICE issued guidelines enabling UK therapists to trial the use of NMES, but the guidelines also sought additional evidence on the impact on swallowing function of NMES and the incidence of side effects. This small prospective case series investigated both of these aspects with a group of patients with dysphagia of neurological origin who had not achieved adequate swallowing function with traditional therapy alone. This study recruited 10 adult patients with dysphagia of neurological origin. All had previously received traditional swallowing therapy for at least 6 months but only achieved a Functional Oral Intake Scale of 4 or less (a scale for amounts and types of oral intake). The total study period was 10 weeks for each subject comprising 5 weeks of traditional therapy delivered three times a week followed by 5 weeks of NMES concurrent with traditional therapy (NMES + traditional therapy) delivered three times a week using the VitalStim stimulator (VitalStim Therapy, UK). In addition, the Quality of Life in Swallowing and Eating Assessment Tool 10 (quality of life scales) were determined to allow comparison between studies. Nine subjects achieved an improvement in swallowing function after NMES + traditional therapy was measured using the Functional Oral Intake Scale, giving a statistically significant improvement (P < 0.001) when NMES + traditional therapy was compared with traditional therapy. In addition, there was a low incidence of adverse effects with only minor adverse events occurring in 1.3% of electrode pair placements.


The current preliminary study suggests that NMES + traditional therapy has a good safety record and may improve oral intake and patient reported swallowing outcomes for subjects with long-standing dysphagia of neurological cause, which has not responded to traditional therapy. Provided care is taken with skin preparation and electrode placement the risk of adverse effects from the treatment was minimal. Significantly, in 30% of the subjects, an improvement in voice quality was found.

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