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Physical Therapy After Oral/Head/Neck Cancer

When you have been diagnosed with oral, head, or neck cancer, physical therapy is probably not something that crosses your mind. There's chemo and/or radiation to think about, and maybe speech therapy to help with chewing, swallowing, and changes to your speech. However, many people report jaw pain or stiffness, neck pain, and even shoulder pain after treatment for oral, head, or neck cancer. Lymphedema, swelling after the removal of lymph nodes, is also a common post-cancer long term or late effect. As well, all cancer survivors who have undergone chemotherapy, regardless of body location/system, are at increased risk of falls, imbalance, and gait disorders.

Light and dark pink cancer awareness ribbon with the writing "Head and Neck Cancer Awareness Month, April"

When you beat cancer, you want to restore your health to your best health, and a physical therapist can help with these late effects.

Jaw pain is also known as temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ/TMD). While all physical therapists learn how to treat the jaw, it is a more complicated joint than you would expect, and seeking out a physical therapist who specializes in the disorder (like those at FlexPlus Physical Therapy), will yield best results. TMJ can as:

  • Jaw pain

  • Jaw fatigue

  • Difficulty opening your mouth to eat, talk, or brush teeth

  • Ringing in your ears

  • Dizziness

  • Headache

  • Popping sounds in your jaw

  • Neck pain

  • Locking jaw

  • Achiness or pain when smiling, talking, eating, or brushing teeth.

Neck and shoulder pain often happens both because radiation can destroy the tissue and because you are in odd and uncomfortable positions repeatedly through the course of radiation. Physical therapy for neck and shoulder pain includes stretching, strengthening, postural training, body mechanics, ergonomics, and pain reduction modalities.

Lymphedema is a physical therapy specialty that cannot be found at every physical therapy clinic. Lymphedema is swelling of the arms and legs due to a disruption in the lymphatic drainage. There are 300 lymph nodes in the head and neck alone, and oral/head/neck cancer are most likely to spread to the lymph nodes. Therefore, many people undergoing treatment for oral/head/neck cancers have lymph nodes removed. Since the lymph nodes' job is to filter and flush lymph fluid, the removal of these nodes means the fluid builds up. Lymphedema therapy is a special type of manual therapy that redirects the fluid to other lymph nodes to be flushed.

Chemotherapy is also known to affect vision, the inner ear, and the vestibular system, as well as contribute to peripheral neuropathy. Our brains rely on our eyes, ears, vestibular system, and the input of our feet on the ground to maintain balance. When these systems are impaired, we experience imbalance and have a greater risk for falls. Another specialty in physical therapy, vestibular-trained physical therapists (like those at FlexPlus Physical Therapy!) can help restore your balance and reduce your fall risk with strengthening exercises, eye exercises, strengthening the vestibular system, and retraining your brain.

Cancer is a terrible disease. When you beat it, make sure to take care of your whole body! If you or a loved one is suffering, we'd love to help. Call FlexPlus Physical Therapy at 508-650-0060 to set up an initial evaluation. Not sure if therapy is right for you? Ask us for a FREE consultation. At FlexPlus Physical Therapy, we're with you every step of the way.

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