Intervention Review

Interventions for the treatment of oral and oropharyngeal cancers: surgical treatment

  1. Alyson Bessell1,*,
  2. Anne-Marie Glenny2,
  3. Susan Furness2,
  4. Jan E Clarkson3,
  5. Richard Oliver4,
  6. David I Conway5,
  7. Michaelina Macluskey6,
  8. Sue Pavitt7,
  9. Philip Sloan8,
  10. Helen V Worthington2

Editorial Group: Cochrane Oral Health Group

Published Online: 7 SEP 2011

Assessed as up-to-date: 16 FEB 2011

DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD006205.pub3

How to Cite

Bessell A, Glenny AM, Furness S, Clarkson JE, Oliver R, Conway DI, Macluskey M, Pavitt S, Sloan P, Worthington HV. Interventions for the treatment of oral and oropharyngeal cancers: surgical treatment. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2011, Issue 9. Art. No.: CD006205. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD006205.pub3.

Author Information

  1. 1

    University of Bristol, Department of Oral and Dental Sciences, Bristol, UK

  2. 2

    School of Dentistry, The University of Manchester, Cochrane Oral Health Group, Manchester, UK

  3. 3

    Cochrane Oral Health Group, The University of Manchester, Dental Health Services & Research Unit, University of Dundee, Dundee, Manchester, UK

  4. 4

    RED (Research and Education in Dentistry), Shrewsbury, UK

  5. 5

    University of Glasgow, Glasgow Dental School, Glasgow, UK

  6. 6

    University of Dundee, Unit of Oral Surgery and Medicine, Dundee, Scotland, UK

  7. 7

    University of Leeds, Leeds Institute of Health Sciences, Leeds, UK

  8. 8

    Royal Victoria Infirmary, Department of Cellular Pathology, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK

*Alyson Bessell, Department of Oral and Dental Sciences, University of Bristol, Lower Maudlin Street, Bristol, BS1 2LY, UK.

Publication History

  1. Publication Status: New search for studies and content updated (conclusions changed)
  2. Published Online: 7 SEP 2011




  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Plain language summary


Surgery is an important part of the management of oral cavity cancer with regard to both the removal of the primary tumour and removal of lymph nodes in the neck. Surgery is less frequently used in oropharyngeal cancer. Surgery alone may be treatment for early stage disease or surgery may be used in combination with radiotherapy, chemotherapy and immunotherapy/biotherapy. There is variation in the recommended timing and extent of surgery in the overall treatment regimens of people with these cancers.


To determine which surgical treatment modalities for oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancers result in increased overall survival, disease free survival, progression free survival and reduced recurrence.

Search methods

The following electronic databases were searched: the Cochrane Oral Health Group Trials Register (to 17 February 2011), the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL) (The Cochrane Library 2011, Issue 1), MEDLINE via OVID (1950 to 17 February 2011) and EMBASE via OVID (1980 to 17 February 2011). There were no restrictions regarding language or date of publication.

Selection criteria

Randomised controlled trials where more than 50% of participants had primary tumours of the oral cavity or oropharynx, and which compared two or more surgical treatment modalities or surgery versus other treatment modalities.

Data collection and analysis

Data extraction and assessment of risk of bias was undertaken independently by two or more review authors. Study authors were contacted for additional information as required. Adverse events data were collected from published trials.

Main results

Seven trials (n = 669; 667 with cancers of the oral cavity) satisfied the inclusion criteria, but none were assessed as low risk of bias. Trials were grouped into three main comparisons. Four trials compared elective neck dissection (ND) with therapeutic neck dissection in patients with oral cavity cancer and clinically negative neck nodes, but differences in type of surgery and duration of follow-up made meta-analysis inappropriate. Three of these trials reported overall and disease free survival. One trial showed a benefit for elective supraomohyoid neck dissection compared to therapeutic ND in overall and disease free survival. Two trials found no difference between elective radical ND and therapeutic ND for the outcomes of overall survival and disease free survival. All four trials found reduced locoregional recurrence following elective ND.

A further two trials compared elective radical ND with elective selective ND and found no difference in overall survival, disease free survival or recurrence. The final trial compared surgery plus radiotherapy to radiotherapy alone but data were unreliable because the trial stopped early and there were multiple protocol violations.

None of the trials reported quality of life as an outcome. Two trials, evaluating different comparisons reported adverse effects of treatment.

Authors' conclusions

Seven included trials evaluated neck dissection surgery in patients with oral cavity cancers. The review found weak evidence that elective neck dissection of clinically negative neck nodes at the time of removal of the primary tumour results in reduced locoregional recurrence, but there is insufficient evidence to conclude that elective neck dissection increases overall survival or disease free survival compared to therapeutic neck dissection. There is very weak evidence from one trial that elective supraomohyoid neck dissection may be associated with increased overall and disease free survival. There is no evidence that radical neck dissection increases overall survival compared to conservative neck dissection surgery. Reporting of adverse events in all trials was poor and it was not possible to compare the quality of life of patients undergoing different surgeries.


Plain language summary

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Plain language summary

Surgical interventions for the treatment of oral cavity (mouth) and oropharyngeal (throat) cancers

The studies in this review focused on patients with cancers in the oral cavity. These studies have not shown that surgery to remove the lymph nodes in the neck, which appear to be cancer-free, at the same time as the cancer is removed is associated with longer survival, but there is evidence that early neck surgery reduces recurrence of the cancer. Neither is there evidence that removal of all the lymph nodes in the neck results in longer survival compared to selective surgical removal of affected lymph nodes. Although removal of lymph nodes from the neck is associated with significant adverse effects related to appearance and functions such as eating, drinking and speaking, the studies in this review did not measure quality of life.