Background: As many as 15% of hospitalized patients have oropharyngeal dysphagia. The incidence and causes of postoperative oropharyngeal dysphagia (OD) in patients having cardiac operations are poorly documented and the best treatment is uncertain. We undertook a study to evaluate OD in patients having cardiac operations.
Methods: As part of a quality improvement project, all patients operated on in 1998 and 1999 were monitored for the signs or symptoms of OD. Patients with OD had diagnostic and therapeutic interventions to limit adverse outcomes. At the end of the 2-year evaluation period, patient risk factors, diagnoses, results of interventions, and outcomes were measured.
Results: Thirty-one out of 1,042, patients (3%) had OD. OD is more common in older patients (p < 0.0001) with diabetes (p = 0.02), renal insufficiency (p = 0.012), hyperlipidemia (p = 0.046), and preoperative congestive heart failure (p < 0.0001), and in those having noncoronary artery bypass procedures (p < 0.0001). One patient with OD died from respiratory arrest, presumably secondary to aspiration. Modified barium swallow (MBS) identified oral dysphagia in 2 patients, pharyngeal dysphagia in 7 patients, and both oral and pharyngeal dysphagia in 17 patients. One patient had a structural defect (cervical osteophyte) causing dysphagia and 4 patients had no identifiable cause of dysphagia on MBS. Postoperative neurologic complications are more common in patients with OD. Ten of 31 patients (32%) with OD had some new neurologic complication after operation compared with 36 of 1,011 (3.5%) who had a postoperative neurologic problem without OD. In 19 patients with OD no cause for swallowing difficulty was identified. Specifically, no metabolic, myopathic, or infectious abnormalities were identified in any patient with OD. Hospital charges were significantly increased in patients with OD ($69,320 versus $36,087, p < 0.0001). Therapy consisting of modification of eating behavior and swallowing technique and in some severe cases enteral or parenteral feeding was successful in all patients except 1, but 4 patients required more than 4 months of supportive care before return to oral feeding was possible.
Conclusions: OD is associated with increased cost and morbidity. Older patients with diabetes, preoperative heart failure, and renal insufficiency are at increased risk for OD. Early recognition and intervention is likely to result in satisfactory outcome but may be associated with a protracted postoperative course.