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Videofluoroscopic Swallowing Study (VFSS)

The videofluoroscopic swallowing study (VFSS), also known as the modified barium swallow study (MBSS), is a radiographic procedure that provides a direct, dynamic view of oral, pharyngeal, and upper esophageal function (Logemann, 1986). A VFSS is typically conducted in a hospital by a speech-language pathologist (SLP) and a radiologist. The patient is given various consistencies of food and liquid mixed with barium (or other contrast material), which allows the bolus to be visualized in real time on an X-ray during the swallow. VFSS is used to assess the anatomy and pathophysiology of the oral and pharyngeal swallow. It can also determine the presence, timing and amount of aspiration and gather information on the influence of compensatory strategies. This information is clinically useful in the development of a treatment plan (Martin-Harris et al., 2000).

VFSSs are typically performed with both an SLP and a radiologist present, allowing for professional collaboration. See ASHA’s resource on Interprofessional Education/Interprofessional Practice (IPE/IPP). Currently, there is no general national payer policy regarding the presence of the radiologist for VFSS. However, some local Medicare Administrative Contractors (MACs), state regulatory agencies for radiology procedures, or third-party payers may require a radiologist’s presence during VFSS. During the procedure, the SLP assesses and documents swallowing physiology and function only, whereas the physician makes medical diagnoses (e.g., reflux, presence of a tumor). The SLP’s VFSS assessment and report do not include medical diagnoses based on the findings of the examination. The SLP should be aware of state, legal, and regulatory issues regarding the presence of a radiologist or other physician—as well as third-party payer requirements specific to the patient’s insurance carrier.

A VFSS is indicated when there is

  • a need to observe oral preparatory, oral transit, pharyngeal, and/or esophageal phases of swallowing;
  • a diagnosed or suspected presence of abnormalities in the anatomy of nasal, oral, pharyngeal, or upper esophageal structures that would preclude endoscopic evaluations;
  • an aversion to having an endoscope inserted;
  • the presence of a respiratory disorder;
  • the presence of a persistent feeding refusal problem for which a swallowing disorder might be a contributing cause; and/or
  • the need to determine treatment or management strategies to minimize the risk of aspiration and increase swallow efficiency (Arvedson & Lefton-Greif, 1998).

Contraindications to VFSS include the following:

  • Patient is unable to maintain adequate positioning.
  • Patient’s size and/or posture prevents adequate imaging or exceeds limit of positioning devices.
  • Patient has an allergy to barium and/or other contrast media (e.g., iohexol).
  • Patient does not demonstrate a swallow response.
  • Patient has a fistula (e.g., trachea-esophageal fistula).
  • Patient is too medically unstable to tolerate the procedure.
  • Patient is unable to cooperate or participate in an instrumental examination.

Special attention should be paid to radiation exposure. See ASHA’s Radiation Safety Resource Page for further information. Additional information regarding equipment, radiologic care, and the roles within the radiology department is also available from the American College of Radiology’s Practice Parameter for the Performance of the Modified Barium Swallow [PDF].

Procedure

Procedures for VFSS may vary across setting and across clinicians. Clinicians should follow facility protocols for VFSS. The SLP may prepare the patient for VFSS as follows:

  • Educate the patient and/or caregiver regarding VFSS procedure, radiation safety, and rationale for the exam.
  • Position the patient upright, if possible.
  • Use postural supports (e.g., head, trunk) as necessary.
  • If the fully upright position is impossible, then the SLP may position the patient in their typical eating position.
  • Consider having the patient fed by a familiar family member or caregiver, if possible (particularly, if the patient is a child).
  • Make every effort to maintain patient in a calm, alert state during testing.

Once VFSS begins, the SLP may

  • identify relevant anatomical structures;
  • evaluate the oral and pharyngeal phases of swallowing;
  • identify effectiveness of swallow function and probe sensory awareness;
  • assess effectiveness of altering bolus delivery or bolus consistency;
  • consider alternative methods of presentation (e.g., modified cups, spoons, alternative nipple to modify flow rate);
  • assess the effectiveness of compensatory techniques on swallow function; and/or
  • assess the presence and effectiveness of the patient’s response to laryngeal penetration, residue, and/or aspiration.

Lateral and anterior–posterior (A-P) views of the oral cavity, pharynx, and upper esophagus provide different valuable information on swallowing anatomy and physiology. Clinicians select bolus type (e.g., consistency, volume) for each trial carefully, as some consistencies and/or volumes may influence the clinician’s overall impression of the swallow function more than others (Martin-Harris et al., 2008; Sandidge, 2009). Clinicians may also instruct a swallow to allow observation of any differences in swallow function between (a) when the patient is instructed to swallow versus (b) when the patient spontaneously swallows. Clinicians also evaluate influence of the method and rate of presentations, such as when the patient is fed by examiner, when the patient is self-fed, when the patient is fed by a caregiver, or when solids and liquids are alternated. A complete VFSS requires a sufficient number of swallowing attempts to determine the need for additional assessments and interventions through interprofessional team referral(s) and to make recommendations concerning

  • exercises and maneuvers to improve swallowing function;
  • compensatory techniques to improve safety and efficiency while consuming an oral diet;
  • the most safe and efficient oral diet consistencies; and
  • the possible need for alternate nutrition and hydration (Logemann et al., 2008).

Clinicians also note the individual’s tolerance of and response to the examination (e.g., following directions, fatigue, signs of stress in medically complex patients, ability to repeat therapeutic interventions). Indications of an adverse reaction to the procedure may include—but are not limited to—agitation; changes in breathing pattern; changes in alertness; changes in coloring, nausea, and vomiting; and/or changes in overall medical status, which may be assessed via the pulse oximeter, heart rate monitor, and so forth.

Given the speed and dynamic nature of swallow function, it is beneficial for the SLP to record these studies and review the recording using standardized measurements (i.e., pharyngeal constriction ratio, normalized residue ratio scale) as well as by applying frame-by-frame analysis of kinematic and temporal events (Lee et al., 2017; Leonard et al., 2006; Miller et al., 2020; Molfenter & Steele, 2011, 2012, 2013; Pearson et al., 2013; Vose et al., 2018).

Anatomical Structures

During VFSS or review of the recording, clinicians identify the anatomical structures (as illustrated below, including any anatomical and/or physiological abnormalities. For observations during VFSS, see table below.

Anatomical Structures

Anatomical Structures

Observations From VFSS

Lip closure Patient’s ability to approximate top and bottom lip
Tongue control Volitional and controlled lingual movement
Bolus preparation Patient’s ability to create a well-contained bolus
Bolus transport Patient’s ability to move the bolus from the oral cavity to the pharyngeal cavity
Oral residue Remaining residue in the oral cavity following oral transport
Initiation of the pharyngeal swallow response Head of the bolus at the initiation of the pharyngeal swallow (hyoid burst) response
Soft palate elevation Upward movement of the soft palate to create velopharyngeal closure
Laryngeal elevation Extent and timeliness of upward movement of the larynx during the swallow
Anterior hyoid motion Extent and timeliness of forward movement of the hyoid
Epiglottic movement Extent and timeliness of passive epiglottic inversion to meet with the arytenoids (moving anteriorly and superiorly)
Laryngeal closure Medial movement of the larynx observed at the vocal folds; may only be able to observe from A-P
Pharyngeal stripping wave Contraction of the posterior pharyngeal wall from top moving downward
Pharyngeal contraction Approximation of the pharyngeal walls
Pharyngeal esophageal sphincter opening Opening of the pharyngeal esophageal sphincter to allow the bolus to move from the pharynx to the esophagus
Tongue base retraction Posterior movement of the tongue base to make contact with the posterior pharyngeal wall
Pharyngeal residue Remaining residue in the pharynx following the pharyngeal swallow
Esophageal clearance in upright position General observation of the passage of the bolus through the esophagus

Penetration and Aspiration During VFSS

Assessment and diagnosis via VFSS requires clinicians to record pathophysiology that leads to episodes of atypical levels of penetration and aspiration during VFSS. Doing so may help suggest interventions that may mitigate negative outcomes and help to plan for treatment. Episodes of penetration and/or aspiration can occur before, during, or after swallow. The Penetration-Aspiration Scale (Rosenbek et al., 1996) is an eight-point scale used to describe penetration and aspiration events. The clinician observes the bolus and the patient’s response to the bolus, including the following scenarios (Rosenbek et al., 1996):

  • if the bolus enters the airway — and if so, at what level, and how much
  • if the patient attempts to clear a penetrated or aspirated bolus from the airway
  • if the patient is successful in ejecting the bolus from the airway (if clearing is attempted)

Limitations of VFSS

Limitations of VFSS include

  • time constraints due to radiation exposure,
  • a limited sample of swallow function that may not be an accurate representation of typical mealtime function,
  • challenges in visualizing the swallow due to poor contrast, challenges in representing foods typically eaten by a patient,
  • challenges in representing foods typically eaten by a patient,
  • limited evaluation of the effect of fatigue on swallowing, and
  • refusal of the bolus, as barium is an unnatural food source and is not tolerated by some patients (Logemann, 1998).

SLPs follow universal precautions and facility procedures for infection control (e.g., adequate disinfection of equipment). Decontamination, cleaning, disinfection, and sterilization of multiple-use equipment before reuse are carried out according to facility-specific infection control policies and services and according to manufacturer’s instructions. All equipment is used and maintained in accordance with the manufacturer’s specifications. For further information on infection control, please visit ASHA’s page on Infection Control Resources for Audiologists and Speech-Language Pathologists. Please see the “Resources” section below for further materials.

Resources

References

Arvedson, J. C., & Lefton-Greif, M. A. (1998). Pediatric videofluoroscopic swallow studies: A professional manual with caregiver guidelines. Communication Skill Builders.

Lee, J. W., Randall, D. R., Evangelista, L. M., Kuhn, M. A., & Belafsky, P. C. (2017). Subjective assessment of videofluoroscopic swallow studies. Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery, 156(5), 901–905. https://doi.org/10.1177/0194599817691276

Leonard, R., Belafsky, P. C., & Rees, C. J. (2006). Relationship between fluoroscopic and manometric measures of pharyngeal constriction: The pharyngeal constriction ratio. Annals of Otology, Rhinology & Laryngology, 115(12), 897–901. https://doi.org/10.1177/000348940611501207

Logemann, J. A. (1986). Manual for the videofluorographic study of swallowing. Little, Brown.

Logemann, J. A. (1998). Evaluation and treatment of swallowing disorders (2nd ed.). Pro-Ed.

Logemann, J. A., Rademaker, A., Pauloski, B. R., Antinoja, J., Bacon, M., Bernstein, M., Gaziano, J., Grande, B., Kelchner, L., Kelly, A., Klaben, B., Lundy, D., Newman, L., Santa, D., Stachowiak, L., Stangl-McBreen, C., Atkinson, C., Bassani, H., Czapla, M., Farquharson, J., Larsen, K., Lewis, V., Logan, H., Nitschke, T., & Veis, S. (2008). What information do clinicians use in recommending oral versus nonoral feeding in oropharyngeal dysphagic patients? Dysphagia, 23(4), 378–384. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00455-008-9152-5

Martin-Harris, B., Brodsky, M. B., Michel, Y., Castell, D. O., Schleicher, M., Sandidge, J., Maxwell, R., & Blair, J. (2008). MBS measurement tool for swallow impairment—MBSImp: Establishing a standard. Dysphagia, 23(4), 392–405. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00455-008-9185-9

Martin-Harris, B., Logemann, J. A., McMahon, S., Schleicher, M., & Sandidge, J. (2000). Clinical utility of the modified barium swallow. Dysphagia, 15(3), 136–141. https://doi.org/10.1007/s004550010015

Miller, M., Vose, A., Rivet, A., Smith-Sherry, M., & Humbert, I. (2020). Validation of the normalized laryngeal constriction ratio in normal and disordered swallowing. Laryngoscope, 130(4), E190–E198. https://doi.org/10.1002/lary.28161

Molfenter, S. M., & Steele, C. M. (2011). Physiological variability in the deglutition literature: Hyoid and laryngeal kinematics. Dysphagia, 26(1), 67–74. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00455-010-9309-x

Molfenter, S. M., & Steele, C. M. (2012). Temporal variability in the deglutition literature. Dysphagia, 27(2), 162–177. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00455-012-9397-x

Molfenter, S. M., & Steele, C. M. (2013). Variation in temporal measures of swallowing: Sex and volume effects. Dysphagia, 28(2), 226–233. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00455-012-9437-6

Pearson, W. G., Molfenter, S. M., Smith, Z. M., & Steele, C. M. (2013). Image-based measurement of post-swallow residue: The normalized residue ratio scale. Dysphagia, 28(2), 167–177. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00455-012-9426-9

Rosenbek, J. C., Robbins, J. A., Roecker, E. B., Coyle, J. L., & Wood, J. L. (1996). A penetration-aspiration scale. Dysphagia, 11(2), 93–98. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00417897

Sandidge, J. (2009). The Modified Barium Swallow Impairment Profile (MBSImp): A new standard physiologic approach to swallowing assessment and targeted treatment. Perspectives on Swallowing and Swallowing Disorders (Dysphagia), 18(4), 117–122. https://doi.org/10.1044/sasd18.4.117

Vose, A. K., Kesneck, S., Sunday, K., Plowman, E., & Humbert, I. (2018). A survey of clinician decision making when identifying swallowing impairments and determining treatment. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 61(11), 2735–2756. https://doi.org/10.1044/2018_JSLHR-S-17-0212

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