You may never have heard of oropharyngeal dysphagia, but it’s a fairly common and quite serious condition that can lead to aspiration, dehydration, pneumonia, malnutrition, depression and death. The term is used to describe difficulty in swallowing, which can be the result of strokes, head and neck cancer, head injuries, old age, and diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Around 16.5 million people in the U.S. alone suffer from it, with invasive surgical techniques that may or may not work being one of the main treatments. Now, however, surgeons from the University of California, Davis, have pioneered a new approach – a simple device that is pierced through the patient’s throat, then moved with their hand when they want to swallow.

UC Davis’ Prof. Peter Belafsky developed the device over five years, drawing inspiration for the design from his daughters’ earrings. It consists of a pin that sits on the outside of the patient’s neck skin, attached to a titanium rod that goes through the skin and neck tissue, which is in turn connected to a postage stamp-sized plate that is sewn into the neck cartilage. When the patient wishes to let food and water down their throat, they pull on the pin with their hand, causing their larynx to move forward and their esophagus to open.

The device has so far only been tried out on Daniel Fiandra, a Uruguayan doctor who had not been able to eat or drink (other than via a feeding tube) for over two years. After monitoring his progress after receiving the implant in August, Belafsky recently declared it a success.

“Most of us don’t even think about the complex physical processes behind eating and swallowing,” said Belafsky. “Not being able to swallow is truly a life-altering problem. I’m very optimistic that this tiny biomedical device may help restore quality of life for the many people who suffer from severe swallowing problems.”

All images courtesy UC Davis.

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