YOLO COUNTY NEWS

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Surgeons test device to help swallowing

By December 2, 2010

Special to The Enterprise

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SACRAMENTO — In what might be one of the world\’s first medicinal body piercings, UC Davis Health System surgeons announced this week that they have successfully implanted an experimental device in the throat of a man that will enable him to manually control his ability to swallow.

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The device, which could offer an effective treatment option for people suffering from severe swallowing problems, is controlled by pulling on a tiny metal pin that extends through the skin in the neck. The post, when pulled forward, manually opens the esophagus and allows food and water to pass.

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The patient, an Uru-guayan physician and a cancer survivor who sought help from UCD swallowing experts, came to Sacramento in mid-November for a series of tests and evaluations as follow-up to last summer\’s implant surgery. Peter Belafsky and Gregory Farwell, both professors of otolaryngology, traveled to South America in August to perform the unique implantation. With the assistance of Uruguayan medical colleagues, they monitored their patient long-distance while waiting for the incision site to fully heal.

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After checking the patient\’s swallowing control and capabilities using the X-ray technology of a fluoroscope, Belafsky pronounced the experimental device a qualified success and one that could offer a much-needed treatment option for tens of thousands of patients with swallowing disorders known as oropharyngeal dysphagia.

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“We\’ve developed an earring-like stud that extrudes about a quarter-inch above the skin, much like a body piercing,” said Belafsky, who directs the Voice and Swallowing Center at UC Davis and spent five years developing the device. He designed it to more closely resemble an earring post after taking his two daughters to get their ears pierced.

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“By attaching a tiny titanium rod to a postage stamp-sized plate that we\’ve sewn into the neck cartilage, we\’ve enabled our patient to safely and without pain pull on the device to move his larynx forward and open the esophagus to allow food and liquid to pass,” said Belafsky. “It\’s the first time a person has been able to manually control the entryway to the esophagus.”

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Severe swallowing disorders are common and costly health problems, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke and the Journal of Rehabilitation Research and Development. Complications include aspiration, dehydration, pneumonia, malnutrition, depression and death. The problem can be caused by a stroke, head and neck cancer, head injuries, advancing age and diseases such as Alz-heimer\’s and Parkinson\’s.

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In the United States, an estimated 16.5 million people may need treatment for problems associated with oropharyngeal dysphagia. A variety of surgical procedures are available to improve swallowing function, but such treatments are invasive and may only provide partial relief, and fail in a significant percentage of individuals.

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— UC Davis Health System

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Charles Casey

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