A method of evaluating a person’s swallowing ability by means of a video-documented physical examination, looking from inside the throat. Also called the fiberoptic endoscopic evaluation of swallowing (FEES). The videoendoscopic swallowing study (VESS) is to be distinguished from the videofluoroscopic swallowing study (VFSS), which is an x-ray-based assessment.
How it works:
To perform a VESS, a clinician uses a fiberoptic or distal-chip nasolaryngoscope. The clinician begins by examining the structure and function of the patient’s palate, tongue, pharynx, and larynx, including sensation, if desired. Next, to assess the patient’s swallowing capabilities and limitations, the clinician positions the tip of the nasolaryngoscope just below the nasopharynx and, looking downward into the throat, asks the patient to swallow a series of colored substances with a range of consistencies (e.g., blue-stained water, blue-stained applesauce, and orange-colored crackers).
As the patient swallows these substances, the clinician watches to see if any significant traces remain in or reappear in the space above, around, or within the larynx, rather than disappearing into the entrance to the esophagus. If significant traces remain in view, or if any material spills into the opening of the larynx or down the trachea, the patient may have presbyphagia. If significant traces initially disappear but then re-emerge upward from the esophageal entrance, the patient may have cricopharyngeal dysfunction, with or without a Zenker’s diverticulum.
Benefits of the videoendoscopic swallowing study:
This method has particular value for patients who are bedfast and cannot travel to the radiology suite, or for patients whose swallowing function is rapidly evolving (improving, usually), such as those recovering from a mild stroke. For clinicians experienced with this technique, VESS can also often be used with new patients complaining of dysphagia during the initial consultation as a robust and—depending on patient history—potentially stand-alone method of diagnosis and management. Sometimes, the VESS findings, along with a patient history of solid food lodgment at the level of the cricoid cartilage or cricopharyngeus muscle, will indicate when VFSS should also be obtained to assess for possible cricopharyngeal dysfunction. Even in this latter circumstance, when VFSS is called upon to confirm a suspected diagnosis, VESS will have already oriented the examiner to the nature and severity of the problem. In most follow-up circumstances other than after cricopharyngeal myotomy, VESS is generally more efficient and inexpensive than VFSS.