Sensory nerve supply of the human oro- and laryngopharynx: a preliminary study

Anat Rec. 2000 Apr 1;258(4):406-20. doi: 10.1002/(SICI)1097-0185(20000401)258:4<406::AID-AR9>3.0.CO;2-5.


To date, the details of human sensory innervation to the pharynx and upper airway have not been demonstrated. In this study, a single human oro- and laryngopharynx obtained from autopsy was processed with a whole-mount nerve staining technique, Sihler's stain, to determine its entire sensory nerve supply. The Sihler's stain rendered all mucosa and soft tissue translucent while counterstaining nerves. The stained specimen was then dissected and the nerves were traced from their origins to the terminal branches. It was found that the sensory innervation of the human pharynx is organized into discrete primary branches that innervate specific areas, although these areas are often connected by small neural anastomoses. The density of innervation varied, with some areas receiving almost no identifiable nerve supply (e.g., posterior wall of the hypopharynx) and certain areas contained much higher density of sensory nerves: the posterior tonsillar pillars; the laryngeal surface of the epiglottis; and the postcricoid and arytenoid regions. The posterior tonsillar pillar was innervated by a dense plexus formed by the pharyngeal branches of the IX and X nerves. The epiglottis was densely innervated by the internal superior laryngeal nerve (ISLN) and IX nerve. Finally, the arytenoid and postcricoid regions were innervated by the ISLN. The postcricoid region had higher density of innervation than the arytenoid area. The use of the Sihler's stain allowed the entire sensory nerve supply of the pharyngeal areas in a human to be demonstrated for the first time. The areas of dense sensory innervation are the same areas that are known to be the most sensitive for triggering reflex swallowing or glottic protection. The data would be useful for further understanding swallowing reflex and guiding sensory reinnervation of the pharynx to treat neurogenic dysphagia and aspiration disorders.

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Deglutition / physiology
  • Glossopharyngeal Nerve / anatomy & histology*
  • Humans
  • Hypopharynx / innervation*
  • Hypopharynx / physiology
  • Laryngeal Nerves / anatomy & histology*
  • Male
  • Oropharynx / innervation*
  • Oropharynx / physiology
  • Staining and Labeling
  • Vagus Nerve / anatomy & histology*