Tongue Exercises After Surgery for Oral Cancer

Dear Eva,

My surgeon removed a chunk of my tongue and lymph nodes in March 2019 for oral cancer. I just finished radiation. My tongue is tight and I cannot eat well.The doctor says it will take 2-4 months after radiation, but I don’t feel any progress. Any advice?

Dear Asmaa,
Radiation causes your tongue to feel stiff making choking when eating more frequent. There are studies about swallowing disorders for a year after radiation. However, there is hope! Your tongue is a muscle and like any muscle, exercise makes a difference.

The tongue is not just one muscle, it’s a conglomeration of eight separate muscles that intertwine to create a flexible matrix similar to an octopus’s tentacles or an elephant’s trunk. Four of the muscles in the matrix anchor the tongue to structures in the head and neck. One muscle holds onto the base of the skull; another connects to a bone in the throat. There is a muscle that grabs on to the lower jaw and another wraps around the palate. These propel the tongue from side to side, front to back, up and down. They allow the tongue to lengthen, shorten, curl, flatten and round. They assist in speaking, eating and swallowing.

You can do all kinds of gymnastics with your tongue! While you are cooking, driving, watching a movie, or taking a walk, activate these different muscle fibers. In addition to the exercises above try these exercises:
Twist tongue
Curl tongue
Stick out tongue as far as possible and stretch from side to side.
Push tongue as hard as you can against your front teeth and hold for 30 seconds. Do the same pushing the tip of your tongue against your palate. Then, try stretching the tip of your tongue as far back on your palate as possible.

Lastly, keep a journal. Before you begin, determine how much strength, endurance and flexibility you have for each of these exercises. Also, make note of activities like eating, swallowing, yawning, and other challenges you hope to improve. You won’t see much improvement unless you do tongue exercises daily for a couple of months. Make it a routine!

Does anyone else have suggestions for Asmaa?

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