The role of oral soft tissues in swallowing function: what can tongue pressure tell us?



Tongue pressure data taken from healthy subjects during normal oral activities such as mastication, speech and swallowing are providing us with new ways of understanding the role of the tongue in craniofacial growth and function. It has long been recognized that the sequential contact between the tongue and the palate plays a crucial role in the oropharyngeal phase of swallowing. However, because the focus of most research on intraoral pressure has been on the generation of positive pressure by the tongue on the hard palate and teeth, generation and coordination of absolute intraoral pressures and regional pressure gradients has remained unexplored.

Ongoing research in our laboratory has uncovered highly variable individual pressure patterns during swallowing, which can nonetheless be divided into four stages: preparatory, primary propulsive, intermediate and terminal. These stages may further be sub-classified according to pressure patterns generated at the individual level as tipper or dipper patterns in the preparatory stage, roller or slapper in the primary propulsive and monophasic or biphasic during the intermediate stage. Interestingly, while an increase in bolus viscosity can result in significant changes to pressure patterns in some individuals, it has little effect in others. Highly individual responses to increased viscosity are also observed with swallowing duration.

The above, together with other findings, have important implications for our understanding of the aetiology of widely differing conditions such as protrusive and retrusive malocclusions, dysphagia and sleep apnoea, as well as the development of novel food products.