Let’s ask expert Kathy Fitzgerald, MS, CCC-SLP!
Kathy, you have owned and operated both a mobile MBS truck and a mobile FEES business. What do you see as the strengths of each study and when do you choose one over the other? As the research has shown, there is no one “gold standard” dysphagia instrumental study any more. I was fortunate to have both procedures available to me at all times. Typically my younger pediatric patients, severely anxious/agitated patients, patients with a history of significant epistaxsis (nosebleeds) and patients with more of an esophageal dysphagia presentation participated in an MBS study.
Patients who presented with suspected or documented voice/vocal fold issues and dysphagia, globus sensation/suspected LPR (laryngopharyngeal reflux ), NPO patients who are working on managing secretions safely, head and neck cancer patients, trach/vent, intubated and ICU patients, bariatric patients, patients who cannot tolerate barium are excellent candidates for the FEES. I also like that I can grossly test and gather some laryngopharyngeal sensation information for patients with a neuro sequelae, something I cannot do with an MBS study. FEES is also excellent for many NICU infants. No radiation and no time limits allows me the flexibility when scoping to test as long as needed. For patients with COPD and CHF, I can really tease out fatigue and look at swallowing over the course of an entire meal. The “breaking point” for aspiration due to fatigue occurs for many of these patients after the 10-minute mark. Fatigue over a meal is something I can’t capture on an MBS.
A FEES may be minimally invasive but it has no time limits. How long does your average FEES exam last? How much more do you see compared to an MBS? And how do patients react? It’s interesting as I was trained for 10 years as a pediatric and adult dysphagia clinician having access to only MBS studies. When I mastered FEES and began bringing the procedure into my clinic- based and then mobile practice, I found I was using FEES more and more. It is more mobile, easier to do in terms of being able to set up in an office or at a patient’s bedside. Depending upon what type of patient you have and what information you are looking to learn, a FEES can run from 5-20 minutes, averaging 12 minutes of continuous recording. When you have a COPD patient or a patient with a neurogenerative process, the scope can be held in place for a whole meal which may even last over a half hour. No time limits!1 When fatigue sets in, you can finally see decompensation of the pharyngeal swallow which often ties to the clinical report of “patient is coughing at the end of the meal.” I was unable to capture this with my MBS as fluoroscopy time is limited to 3 minutes or so, and the fluoro picture isn’t continuous because the machine is turned on/off intermittently. An MBS is a black and white picture where you are viewing a patient’s swallow usually laterally with perhaps a turn to get an A/P view BUT the FEES picture is continuous as there is no radiation, capturing video throughout the whole exam time. A FEES exam is a bird’s eye view of the pharyngeal swallow, 3-dimensional and in color. Tissue color/abnormalities, vocal fold structure and function, radiation damage, signs of laryngeal reflux are unparalleled.
Patients who are appropriate for the exam do very well with the exam. The patient is educated about the procedure, and are able to talk to me during the entire test to let me know how they are doing. It is no different than an in-office ENT nasendoscopy exam which is routinely preformed daily. In the rare circumstance the patient is uncomfortable/anxious and cannot tolerate the test, it of course can be discontinued at any time. FEES clinicians have training that specifically deals with these challenges and clinicians need to be proficient in dealing with patients as well as performing a competent exam. I teach this procedure to others and have been scoped numerous times. Most often the feedback I get is “there’s a little pressure but it’s not bad.” Also, clinicians must remember that most often a patient experiencing actual dysphagia has less sensation due to stroke, deconditioning and structural issues or even age related changes. Our geriatric patients have more open spaces in the nasal passages since the turbinates shrink with age.
What about the “white-out?” Yes, this is when during a FEES exam there is a quick white out of the glottic picture as the scope light shines on the back of the epiglottis, deflects then recoils during a pharyngeal swallow. Camera shutter speeds have greatly improved. The literature suggests that 90% of aspiration occurs before the swallow or after the swallow. Some clinicians who are newer to FEES often are concerned that “they will miss aspiration during a swallow.” This was my greatest concern when I moved from solely MBS and incorporated FEES into my practice. A skilled clinician moves the scope over the epiglottis as it is recoiling to catch anything leftover that would be in the glottis due to aspiration during the swallow with the green contrast left over. Also within the literature and years of research, there is no suggestion that having a FEES over an MBS study results in missed aspiration. I have now performed FEES for 17 years and my outcomes correlate with this as well.
What foods can a FEES test? How does this measure up to an MBS? Typically flavorless food coloring (the same as used to color frosting) is used in liquids or complex solids for a FEES exam to differentiate left over residue or aspiration from secretions. We do not use barium as we do not need radiopaque contrast. We can use any consistency of food and liquid, including milk, soda and even “questionable nectars” like health shakes. The fact that such a variety of REAL food with no barium mixed in is appealing to many therapist and many patients do not like the look/taste or viscosity of the barium mixed in the foods for an MBS study. Sometimes there is even barium paste used for MBS studies which is difficult for the patient to transit as it is very sticky and adheres to food, or even breaks food down if left too long on breads and crackers.
Can you share a recent FEES success story? Yes! Just last week a female patient in her 80’s had two previous MBS studies. There was a general concern of general “coughing a lot, but also at meals.” She was consuming a regular textured diet with thin liquids. The two previous MBS studies were negative for penetration/aspiration, however, the nursing facility downgraded her to nectar liquids and a moist ground diet texture “as a precaution.” The patient slowly stopped eating. The SLP/ MD ordered a FEES exam for another look to assess if there was anything that was being missed. Sure enough, this patient ended up having significant post nasal drip/sinus issues which hadn’t been addressed. The patient also had significant LPR and was making a lot of mucous. Although the patient was not remotely penetrating or aspirating food or liquid, she was intermittently penetrating post nasal drip and mucous when her airway was open and this was the root of the cough. Her excessive coughing contributed to a hypersensitive glottis and in combination with the LPR this set her into the chromic cough pattern. Since the FEES saw the secretions and the color of the reddened post-cricoid area, the patient’s physician was able to address both issues with nasal spray and short term reflux medication. She is happily eating a regular diet again and her coughing has significantly diminished!