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Timing of postoperative oral feeding after head and neck mucosal free flap reconstruction

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Fistula remains a common complication of upper aerodigestive tract reconstruction. Optimal timing of oral feeding is unknown and the impact of early feeding on swallow function and fistula rates remains controversial. The purpose of this study is to better understand the effects of "early feeding" on fistula rate and swallow in patients with free flap reconstruction of upper aerodigestive tract defects.


Retrospective cohort study. One hundred and four patients undergoing free flap reconstruction of mucosalized head and neck defects. Two groups, early feeding (oral intake on or before postoperative day 5) and late-feeding (oral intake after postoperative day 5). Primary outcome was incidence of salivary fistula. Secondary outcomes included Functional Oral Intake Scale scores.


Fistula rate was 16.5% in late-feeding group and 0% in early-feeding group (P = .035). Patients who were fed early had an association with progression to a full oral diet by 30 days (P = .027).


This cohort analysis suggests that in properly selected patients with free flap reconstruction for mucosal defects, early feeding may not increase risk of salivary fistula and may improve swallow functional outcomes earlier. Level of Evidence: 3.

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