Swallowing therapy for difficulties with swallowing in stroke survivors who have had a recent stroke

Question

We wanted to assess the effectiveness of swallowing therapy for stroke survivors with dysphagia (difficulty in swallowing). We looked at swallowing therapy in survivors up to six months after stroke.

Background

Stroke often results in difficulty swallowing. This can lead to choking, chest infections, poorer quality of life, longer hospital stay, and increased risk of death or discharge to a care home. Therapy to improve swallowing aims to speed up recovery of swallowing function and reduce these risks.

Study characteristics

This is an update of the review originally published in 1999 and previously updated in 2012. We have now included a total of 41 studies (2660 participants), and the evidence is current to June 2018. Swallowing therapy comprises several different treatment types, and we looked at eight of these: acupuncture (11 studies), behavioural interventions (nine studies), drug therapy (three studies), neuromuscular electrical stimulation (NMES; six studies), pharyngeal electrical stimulation (PES; four studies), physical stimulation (three studies), transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS; two studies), and transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS; nine studies).

Key results

Swallowing therapy did not result in less death or disability among stroke survivors, nor did it lead to a safer swallow after treatment. However, some individual swallowing therapies seemed to reduce hospital length of stay, lessen the chance of getting a chest infection or pneumonia, or improve swallowing ability and recovery from swallowing problems. Many of the swallowing therapies involved different methods of delivery, so it is still not clear which approach is most effective for each type of therapy.

Quality of the evidence

The quality of the evidence was generally very low, low, or moderate. Additional high-quality studies are needed.

Authors' conclusions: 

Moderate- and low-quality evidence suggests that swallowing therapy did not have a significant effect on the outcomes of death or dependency/disability, case fatality at the end of the trial, or penetration aspiration score. However, swallowing therapy may have reduced length of hospital stay, dysphagia, and chest infections, and may have improved swallowing ability. However, these results are based on evidence of variable quality, involving a variety of interventions. Further high-quality trials are needed to test whether specific interventions are effective.

Read the full abstract...
Background: 

Dysphagia (swallowing problems), which is common after stroke, is associated with increased risk of death or dependency, occurrence of pneumonia, poor quality of life, and longer hospital stay. Treatments provided to improve dysphagia are aimed at accelerating recovery of swallowing function and reducing these risks. This is an update of the review first published in 1999 and updated in 2012.

Objectives: 

To assess the effects of swallowing therapy on death or dependency among stroke survivors with dysphagia within six months of stroke onset.

Search strategy: 

We searched the Cochrane Stroke Group Trials Register (26 June 2018), the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL; 2018, Issue 6) in the Cochrane Library (searched 26 June 2018), MEDLINE (26 June 2018), Embase (26 June 2018), the Cumulative Index to Nursing and Allied Health Literature (CINAHL) (26 June 2018), Web of Science Core Collection (26 June 2018), SpeechBITE (28 June 2016), ClinicalTrials.Gov (26 June 2018), and the World Health Organization International Clinical Trials Registry Platform (26 June 2018). We also searched Google Scholar (7 June 2018) and the reference lists of relevant trials and review articles.

Selection criteria: 

We sought to include randomised controlled trials (RCTs) of interventions for people with dysphagia and recent stroke (within six months).

Data collection and analysis: 

Two review authors independently applied the inclusion criteria, extracted data, assessed risk of bias, used the GRADE approach to assess the quality of evidence, and resolved disagreements through discussion with the third review author (PB). We used random-effects models to calculate odds ratios (ORs), mean differences (MDs), and standardised mean differences (SMDs), and provided 95% confidence intervals (CIs) for each.

The primary outcome was functional outcome, defined as death or dependency (or death or disability), at the end of the trial. Secondary outcomes were case fatality at the end of the trial, length of inpatient stay, proportion of participants with dysphagia at the end of the trial, swallowing ability, penetration aspiration score, or pneumonia, pharyngeal transit time, institutionalisation, and nutrition.

Main results: 

We added 27 new studies (1777 participants) to this update to include a total of 41 trials (2660 participants).

We assessed the efficacy of swallowing therapy overall and in subgroups by type of intervention: acupuncture (11 studies), behavioural interventions (nine studies), drug therapy (three studies), neuromuscular electrical stimulation (NMES; six studies), pharyngeal electrical stimulation (PES; four studies), physical stimulation (three studies), transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS; two studies), and transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS; nine studies).

Swallowing therapy had no effect on the primary outcome (death or dependency/disability at the end of the trial) based on data from one trial (two data sets) (OR 1.05, 95% CI 0.63 to 1.75; 306 participants; 2 studies; I² = 0%; P = 0.86; moderate-quality evidence). Swallowing therapy had no effect on case fatality at the end of the trial (OR 1.00, 95% CI 0.66 to 1.52; 766 participants; 14 studies; I² = 6%; P = 0.99; moderate-quality evidence). Swallowing therapy probably reduced length of inpatient stay (MD -2.9, 95% CI -5.65 to -0.15; 577 participants; 8 studies; I² = 11%; P = 0.04; moderate-quality evidence). Researchers found no evidence of a subgroup effect based on testing for subgroup differences (P = 0.54). Swallowing therapy may have reduced the proportion of participants with dysphagia at the end of the trial (OR 0.42, 95% CI 0.32 to 0.55; 1487 participants; 23 studies; I² = 0%; P = 0.00001; low-quality evidence). Trial results show no evidence of a subgroup effect based on testing for subgroup differences (P = 0.91). Swallowing therapy may improve swallowing ability (SMD -0.66, 95% CI -1.01 to -0.32; 1173 participants; 26 studies; I² = 86%; P = 0.0002; very low-quality evidence). We found no evidence of a subgroup effect based on testing for subgroup differences (P = 0.09). We noted moderate to substantial heterogeneity between trials for these interventions. Swallowing therapy did not reduce the penetration aspiration score (i.e. it did not reduce radiological aspiration) (SMD -0.37, 95% CI -0.74 to -0.00; 303 participants; 11 studies; I² = 46%; P = 0.05; low-quality evidence). Swallowing therapy may reduce the incidence of chest infection or pneumonia (OR 0.36, 95% CI 0.16 to 0.78; 618 participants; 9 studies; I² = 59%; P = 0.009; very low-quality evidence).

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