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Tool makes for a well-toned tongue

Device helps stroke patients swallow easier

By Marsha Walton

The "tongue-toning" device can make a big difference in both physical and emotional recovery to stroke patients.

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(CNN) -- Gym equipment can help keep abs, pecs and quads in shape. But what kind of a workout is there for an often forgotten muscle -- the tongue?

Not much until recently, when Dr. Joanne Robbins of the University of Wisconsin Medical School asked biomedical engineering students to design such a device.

"Eighteen million people in the United States have swallowing problems," said Robbins. "It was our hypothesis that the mouth and tongue, like the legs and arms, diminished in strength with age, and perhaps exercise could help."

Patent pending on device

The National Institutes of Health and the Veterans Administration funded her studies, which led to the now patent-pending device that helps patients give their tongue a good workout and helps their doctors measure tongue strength.

Robbins said the "tongue-toning" device can make a big difference in both physical and emotional recovery to stroke patients, people with Parkinson's disease, and others with swallowing problems.

Physically, if a tongue atrophies too much, it can lead to pneumonia, malnutrition, dehydration and often depression.

"Many patients who have had strokes don't interact with neighbors or community the way they used to," said Dr. Jeffrey Harris, a neurologist who directs the stroke program at Huntsville Hospital in Huntsville, Alabama.

They feel they might embarrass themselves, he said, and often become increasingly isolated because they have to eat just soft or pureed foods, or even resort to a liquid diet.

Harris says a device that could help improve both swallowing and speech could benefit patients who may have given up on many social activities.

Putting it to work

So how does the tongue toner work?

Known formally as the Madison Oral Strengthening Tongue Device (MOST), it looks something like an elaborate mouth guard that a football player might wear. There are two sensors inside that measure levels of pressure when the wearer lifts his or her tongue to the roof of the mouth.

That data is transmitted to another small device that a doctor can monitor. It also emits audio beeps so wearers know when they've reached a certain level of success.

It took University of Wisconsin students only $240 to build the prototype. That achievement earned them an invitation to the Collegiate Inventors Competition sponsored by the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

Robbins wanted to make sure that the device was simple to use for patients who are sometimes frail. In tests with about 30 patients, she found the tongue toner also helped strengthen head and neck muscles.

"The tongue is one of the few organs that is purely muscle -- no bone, no cartilage. So it's a great structure to try and exercise," said Robbins.

Not being sold yet

The device is not yet on the market. The biomedical engineering students are making some additional refinements

So what's it like studying this misunderstood muscle?

"There are some smirks and laughs, because the tongue of course has some sexual connotations," said Robbins.

But as associate director of the Geriatrics Research, Education and Clinical Center at the William S. Middleton Memorial V.A. Medical Center in Madison, she's seen dramatic improvement in many patients.

Her house is filled with treats and family favorites that her patients have sent her -- grateful that they are again able to eat the foods they love.

"You should see my house at Christmas," Robbins said.

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