Shoulder pain and dysfunction are highly prevalent after neck dissection in the treatment of head and neck cancer (HNC). They can lead to muscle weakness, limited range of motion, and shoulder tilt and pain, which can reduce patient functioning. The purpose of this study was to evaluate the effectiveness of rehabilitation interventions for shoulder dysfunction in patients with surgically treated HNC.
A search of principal databases (MEDLINE, EMBASE, CENTRAL, LILACS, IBECS, PEDro, and SCIELO) was conducted, in addition to hand searches and a search of gray literature, for all randomized clinical trials (RCTs) published before February 2020. Two authors independently selected all relevant studies. The 7 RCTs fulfilling all inclusion and exclusion criteria were assessed for risk of bias and certainty of evidence using the Cochrane Collaboration risk-of-bias tool and the Grading of Recommendations Assessment, Development and Evaluation (GRADE) tool, respectively.
Moderate-certainty evidence suggests that progressive resistance training is better than conventional treatment for improving pain and dysfunction in patients with HNC (pooled data from 214 participants; mean difference = -5.92; 95% CI = -11.38 to -0.45). Low-certainty evidence (data from 2 RCTs with 106 participants that could not be combined) suggests that acupuncture seems to be more effective than conventional treatment.
Progressive resistance training is effective for improving shoulder pain and dysfunction in patients with HNC. Further high-quality RCTs are needed to examine the effectiveness of acupuncture for improving shoulder pain and dysfunction in these patients. Future studies with longer follow-up times are needed to clarify the effects of early postoperative intervention.
Clinicians can have confidence that progressive resistance training in patients with surgically treated HNC is effective.

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