Laryngectomy is the partial or complete surgical removal of the larynx, usually as a treatment for cancer of the larynx.
Normally a laryngectomy is performed to remove tumors or cancerous tissue. In rare cases, it may be done when the larynx is badly damaged by gunshot, automobile injuries, or similar violent accidents. Laryngectomies can be total or partial. Total laryngectomies are done when cancer is advanced. The entire larynx is removed. Often if the cancer has spread, other surrounding structures in the neck, such as lymph nodes, are removed at the same time. Partial laryngectomies are done when cancer is limited to one spot. Only the area with the tumor is removed. Laryngectomies may also be performed when other cancer treatment options, such as radiation or chemotherapy, fail.
Laryngectomy - Precautions
Laryngectomy is done only after cancer of the larynx has been diagnosed by a series of tests that allow the otolaryngologist (a specialist often called an ear, nose, and throat doctor) to look into the throat and take tissue samples (biopsies) to confirm and stage the cancer. People need to be in good general health to undergo a laryngectomy, and will have standard pre-operative blood work and tests to make sure they are able to safely withstand the operation.
Laryngectomy - Description
The larynx is located slightly below the point where the throat divides into the esophagus, which takes food to the stomach, and the trachea (windpipe), which takes air to the lungs. Because of its location, the larynx plays a critical role in normal breathing, swallowing, and speaking. Within the larynx, vocal folds (often called vocal cords) vibrate as air is exhaled past, thus creating speech. The epiglottis protects the trachea, making sure that only air gets into the lungs. When the larynx is removed, these functions are lost.
Once the larynx is removed, air can no longer flow into the lungs. During this operation, the surgeon removes the larynx through an incision in the neck. The surgeon also performs a tracheotomy. He makes an artificial opening called a stoma in the front of the neck. The upper portion of the trachea is brought to the stoma and secured, making a permanent alternate way for air to get to the lungs. The connection between the throat and the esophagus is not normally affected, so after healing, the person whose larynx has been removed (called a laryngectomee) can eat normally. However, normal speech is no longer possible. Several alternate means of vocal communication can be learned with the help of a speech pathologist.
Laryngectomy - Preparation
As with any surgical procedure, the patient will be required to sign a consent form after the procedure is thoroughly explained. Many patients prefer a second opinion, and some insurers require it. Blood and urine studies, along with chest x ray and EKG may be ordered as the doctor deems necessary. The patient also has a pre-operative meeting with an anesthesiologist. If a complete laryngectomy is planned, it may be helpful to meet with a speech pathologist and/or an established laryngectomee for discussion of post-operative expectations and support.
Laryngectomy - Aftercare
A person undergoing a laryngectomy spends several days in intensive care (ICU) and receives intravenous (IV) fluids and medication. As with any major surgery, the blood pressure, pulse, and respirations are monitored regularly. The patient is encouraged to turn, cough, and deep breathe to help mobilize secretions in the lungs. One or more drains are usually inserted in the neck to remove any fluids that collect. These drains are removed after several days.
It takes two to three weeks for the tissues of the throat to heal. During this time, the laryngectomee cannot swallow food and must receive nutrition through a tube inserted through the nose and down the throat into the stomach. During this time, even people with partial laryngectomies are unable to speak.
When air is drawn in normally through the nose, it is warmed and moistened before it reaches the lungs. When air is drawn in through the stoma, it does not have the opportunity to be warmed and humidified. In order to keep the stoma from drying out and becoming crusty, laryngectomees are encouraged to breathe artificially humidified air. The stoma is usually covered with a light cloth to keep it clean and to keep unwanted particles from accidentally entering the lungs. Care of the stoma is extremely important, since it is the person's only way to get air to the lungs. After a laryngectomy, a healthcare professional will teach the laryngectomee and his or her caregivers how to care for the stoma.
Immediately after a laryngectomy, an alternate method of communication such as writing notes, gesturing, or pointing must be used. A partial laryngectomy patient will gradually regain some speech several weeks after the operation, but the voice may be hoarse, weak, and strained. A speech pathologist will work with a complete laryngectomee to establish new ways of communicating.
There are three main methods of vocalizing after a total laryngectomy. In esophageal speech the laryngectomee learns how to "swallow" air down into the esophagus and creates sounds by releasing the air. This method requires quite a bit of coordination and learning, and produces short bursts (7 or 8 syllables) of low-volume sound.
Tracheoesophageal speech diverts air through a hole in the trachea made by the surgeon. The air then passes through an implanted artificial voice prosthesis (a small tube that makes a sound when air goes through it). Recent advances have been made in implanting voice prostheses that produce good voice quality.
The third method of artificial sound communication involves using a hand-held electronic device that translates vibrations into sounds. There are several different styles of these devices, but all require the use of at least one hand to hold the device to the throat. The choice of which method to use depends on many things including the age and health of the laryngectomee, and whether other parts of the mouth, such as the tongue, have also been removed.
Many patients resume daily activities after surgery. Special precautions must be taken during showering or shaving. Special instruction and equipment is also required for those who wish to swim or water ski, as it is dangerous for water to enter the windpipe and lungs through the stoma.
Regular follow-up visits are important following treatment for cancer of the larynx because there is a higher-than-average risk of developing a new cancer in the mouth, throat, or other regions of the head or neck. Many self-help and support groups are available to help patients meet others who face similar problems.
Laryngectomy - Risks
Laryngectomy is often successful in curing early stage cancers. However it does cause lifestyle changes. Laryngectomees must learn new ways of speaking. They must be continually concerned about the care of their stoma. Serious infections can occur if water or other foreign material enters the lungs through an unprotected stoma. Also, women who undergo partial laryngectomy or who learn some types of artificial speech will have a deep voice similar to that of a man. For some women this presents psychological challenges.
Ideally, removal of the larynx will remove all cancerous material. The person will recover from the operation, make lifestyle adjustments, and return to an active life.
Sometimes cancer has spread to surrounding tissues and it is necessary to remove lymph nodes, parts of the tongue, or other cancerous tissues. As with any major operation, post- surgical infection is possible. Infection is of particular concern to laryngectomees who have chosen to have a voice prosthesis implanted, and is one of the major reasons for having to remove the device.