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Oral Complications of Chemotherapy and Head/Neck Radiation (PDQ®): Supportive care - Health Professional Information [NCI] - Late Complications of Head and Neck Radiation

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A systematic review regarding treatment-dependent frequency, current management strategies, and future studies has been published.[29] A total of 43 articles published between 1990 and 2008 were reviewed. The weighted prevalence for ORN included the following:

  • Conventional radiation therapy, 7.4%.
  • IMRT, 5.1%.
  • Chemoradiation therapy, 6.8%.
  • Brachytherapy, 5.3%.

HBO may contribute a role in management of ORN. However, no clear recommendations for the prevention or treatment of ORN could be established on the basis of the literature reviewed. The review concluded that new cancer treatment modalities such as IMRT and concomitant chemoradiation therapy have had minimal effect on prevalence of ORN. No studies have systematically addressed the impact of ORN on either quality of life or cost of care. Research addressing these collective issues is needed.

Partial mandibulectomy may be necessary in severe cases of ORN. The mandible can be reconstructed to provide continuity for esthetics and function. A multidisciplinary cancer team that includes oncologists, oncology nurses, maxillofacial prosthodontists, general dentists, hygienists, and physical therapists is appropriate for management of these patients.

Tissue Necrosis

Necrosis and secondary infection of previously irradiated tissue is a serious complication for patients who have undergone radiation therapy for head and neck tumors.[3] Acute effects typically involve oral mucosa. Chronic changes involving bone and mucosa are a result of the process of vascular inflammation and scarring that in turn result in hypovascular, hypocellular, and hypoxic changes. Infection secondary to tissue injury and osteonecrosis confounds the process.

Soft tissue necrosis can involve any mucosal surface in the mouth, though nonkeratinized surfaces appear to be at moderately higher risk. Trauma and injury are often associated with nonhealing soft tissue necrotic lesions, though spontaneous lesions are also reported. Soft tissue necrosis begins as an ulcerative break in the mucosal surface and can spread in diameter and depth. Pain will generally become more prominent as soft tissue necrosis becomes worse. Secondary infection is a risk.

Mandibular Dysfunction

Musculoskeletal syndromes may develop secondary to radiation therapy and surgery. Lesions include soft tissue fibrosis, surgically induced mandibular discontinuity, and parafunctional habits associated with emotional stress caused by cancer and its treatment. Patients can be instructed in physical therapy interventions such as mandibular stretching exercises and the use of prosthetic aids designed to reduce the severity of fibrosis. It is important that these approaches be instituted before trismus develops. If clinically significant changes develop, several approaches can be considered, including the following:

  • Stabilization of occlusion.
  • Use of trigger-point injection and other pain management strategies.
  • Use of muscle relaxants.
  • Use of tricyclic medications.
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