Image Credit: Karl Storz

Image Credit: Karl Storz

What is a Salivary Gland?

Salivary glands are responsible for making saliva and releasing it into the mouth. There are three pairs of relatively large, major salivary glands. In addition, 600 to 1,000 minor salivary glands are scattered throughout the mouth and throat.

  • Parotid glands are located in the upper part of each cheek, close to the ear.
  • Submandibular glands are located under the jaw.
  • Sublingual glands are located beneath the tongue.

What is Salivary Gland Obstruction?

Salivary gland obstruction is a blockage that prevents saliva from exiting the duct as it should. The condition is most often caused by a “stone” lodged within the main salivary duct, scarring of the duct caused by trauma or previous infection, or infection or other inflammation of the gland that causes pressure on the duct- pinching it off.

Symptoms

  • Pain and swelling occurs in the mouth, most often when eating.
  • Infection may cause increased pain and swelling of the glands.
  • Glands may become abscessed if left untreated.

Treatments

Treatment of salivary gland obstruction can range from at-home treatment to surgery. Surgery is often necessary for recurrent or chronic blockages. While removal of the affected gland is an effective treatment, the invasive procedure may leave a scar.

A new option, called Sialendoscopy, is used to diagnose and treat obstructions. The method uses miniature endoscopes introduced into the main salivary duct to examine the affected area and remove the blockage.

Benefits of Sialendoscopy include:

  • Accurate diagnosis
  • No scarring and less trauma
  • Fast recovery
  • Improved quality of life

Image Credit: Karl Storz

Salivary Gland Disorders

Some of the most common salivary gland disorders include:

  • Sialolithiasis: Also known as salivary gland stones, these are small, calcium-rich deposits that can form inside the salivary glands. The exact cause is unknown but some stones may be related to:

    • Dehydration
    • Decreased food intake
    • Medications that decrease saliva production
  • Sialadenitis: Sialadenitis is the medical term for an infection of a salivary gland. This infection is painful and usually caused by bacteria. It is more common among elderly adults with salivary gland stones, but can also occur in infants during the first few weeks of life. Without proper treatment, sialadenitis can develop into a severe infection, especially in people who are debilitated or elderly.

  • Viral Infections: Systemic (whole-body) viral infections sometimes settle in the salivary glands. This causes facial swelling, pain and difficulty eating. The most common example is mumps.
  • Cysts: Cysts are small fluid-filled sacs. These can occur in babies’ parotid glands due to problems related to ear development before birth. Later in life, other types of cysts may form in the major or minor salivary glands. Cysts may also result from traumatic injuries, infections, or salivary gland stones or tumors.

  • Benign Tumors: Benign tumors, also known as noncancerous tumors, are mostly found in the parotid gland. The most common type of benign parotid tumor usually appears as a slow-growing, painless lump at the back of the jaw, just below the earlobe. Risk factors include radiation exposure and smoking.
  • Malignant Tumors: Malignant tumors, also known as cancerous tumors, are usually rare and can vary in aggressiveness. The only known risk factors for salivary gland cancers are Sjogren’s syndrome and exposure to radiation. Smoking may also play a role.
  • Sjogren’s Syndrome: Sjogren’s syndrome is a chronic autoimmune disorder. The body’s immune defenses attack different parts of the body, including the salivary glands, the lacrimal glands (glands that produce tears), and occasionally the skin’s sweat and oil glands. Most individuals with this disease are women who first develop symptoms during middle age. In about half of the cases, the illness occurs together with rheumatoid arthritis, systemic lupus erythematosus (lupus), scleroderma or polymyositis.
  • Sialadenosis: Sialadenosis is the medical term for a nonspecific salivary gland enlargement. Sometimes, the salivary glands become enlarged without evidence of infection, inflammation or tumor. This nonspecific enlargement is called sialadenosis and it most often affects the parotid gland. Its cause remains unknown.