Occupational therapy and swallowing problems after brain tumour surgery

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Find out how an occupational therapist can help your child with after surgery for a brain tumour.

Key points

  • An occupational therapist can help with difficulties in swallowing, fine motor, gross motor and thinking skills.
  • The OT will observe your child while they eat and drink, and may recommend a feeding study to see what your child can safely eat and drink.
  • Your child may benefit from an occupational therapist (OT) to improve their ability to do everyday tasks.
  • In the hospital, the OT can help identify areas of difficulties such as thinking, eating, or playing skills. If your child is having any problems swallowing, they should be referred to an OT.
  • Once your child is at home, they may need to continue to use the services of an OT in the community.

What can an occupational therapist help with?

An occupational therapist (OT) is specifically trained to find any difficulties in swallowing, fine motor, gross motor, and thinking skills.

These can affect a child's ability to do everyday tasks in the following areas:

  • Self-care skills: eating, bathing, dressing, toileting and hygiene
  • Play skills: playing with toys or a game, finding a toy, or playing with friends
  • School skills: attention and memory skills, organizing a task, writing, using scissors

Swallowing and occupational therapy

Your child may have swallowing problems after surgery, or with certain types of tumours, such as posterior-fossa or brainstem tumours. Swallowing problems connected with surgery usually improve with time. For some children, swallowing problems may improve with chemotherapy or radiation therapy.

It is not uncommon for children to require a feeding tube after surgery or during treatment due to swallowing changes and/or poor intake. Your child should continue to work with the occupational therapist (OT) to safely eat and drink, even if they have a feeding tube.

How will swallowing problems affect your child?

Swallowing involves many nerves and muscles around the head and neck, such as the lips, cheeks, tongue, throat and trachea (the airway leading to the lungs).

If any of these structures are impacted by the tumour or treatment for the tumour, your child could lose coordination or strength of their swallow.

If there is a swallowing difficulty:

  • Your child may not eat enough to keep up with their nutritional needs.
  • Your child may be at risk for aspiration. This means that food or fluid goes into the lungs instead of the stomach. If this happens often, it can cause pneumonia.

Signs of swallowing problems

  • Choking or coughing during eating or drinking
  • A wet-sounding voice or breathing
  • Frequent chest infections
  • Being afraid to eat or drink
  • Avoiding certain foods or drinks
  • Complaints of food getting stuck or going the wrong way
  • Drooling
  • Pocketing of food in the mouth

What can be done?

The OT will watch and listen while your child is eating or drinking and may also ask your child to move the muscles of their tongue, lips, and cheeks. In some cases, the OT may recommend a feeding study, which is a video X-ray that finds out what your child can drink and eat safely. It is like a movie of what happens inside your child’s mouth and throat from when food enters their mouth until after they swallow.

An OT, radiologist, and X-ray technologist will take part in your child’s feeding study. During the feeding study, your child may be asked to drink different liquids and eat different foods. After the study, the OT will suggest how to feed your child.

Last updated: January 10th 2022