May is Better Hearing and Speech Month

May 30, 2018

While most people have heard of speech therapy, many do not realize that this treatment involves so much more than just learning to speak better.  The speech language therapists at Penn Highlands Healthcare do so much more than that.

Since May is Better Hearing and Speech Month, it’s a perfect time to learn about speech therapists, what they do and who they help.

Speech therapy is a form of rehabilitation that is designed to help those suffering from a communication and/or swallowing impairment.  According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, or ASHA, language, speech, cognitive-communicative and swallowing disorders are all treated by speech therapists.

Jeff Brown, speech-language pathologist at Penn Highlands Brookville, pointed out that most people don’t realize that swallowing disorders are also treated in speech therapy. 

Swallowing problems are often the result of another disorder, such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s or Huntington’s disease.  Sometimes these issues occur after a stroke or brain trauma.  According to ASHA, impaired swallowing can also be caused by certain cancers or cancer treatments.

There are a range of possible treatments for swallowing impairments.  Options include exercises designed to improve muscle strength and increase a patient’s ability to swallow and even adjusting diet, according to Tricia Stauffer, speech-language pathologist at Penn Highlands Elk.

Angie Snyder, speech-language pathologist at Penn Highlands Clearfield, further explained modified diets are a way to break foods into different textures that often involve little to no chewing.  She also pointed out that some patients have difficulty swallowing liquids, as well.  For those patients, a thickened liquid diet may be implemented.

Often times, patients experiencing difficulty swallowing will undergo a modified barium swallow study, which is a method to see what happens when a drink or a bite of food enters the esophagus and goes down to the stomach, according to Toni Mohney, speech-language pathologist at Penn Highlands DuBois.  

“This is a great way to see which muscle groups are impaired and in need of training,” she said.

“Most people think that swallowing just happens, but that’s not true,” said Snyder.  “Think how hard parents work with young children to teach them to chew and swallow safely.”  The same hard work is needed after a stroke or other brain trauma to learn this again.

For patients who have experienced head trauma, a stroke or have a disease that has led to cognitive impairment, such as Parkinson’s, speech therapists are trained in memory techniques, as well.  “These techniques are also beneficial to patients suffering from dementia or even memory loss associated with the normal aging process,” added Stauffer.

The cognitive and memory techniques vary from patient to patient, but the goal is to develop memory strategies that families can implement to improve a patient’s independence, according to Stauffer.  

Speech therapists can also combine techniques to garner the best results.  Many patients they encounter have lost the ability to communicate as they used to.  Often times, particularly following a stroke or traumatic brain injury, an interruption in the connection from the brain to the muscles can cause difficulty in articulation, according to Snyder.  

“Basically, their thoughts aren’t coming out correctly, meaning the words they are thinking aren’t coming out in a way that makes sense,” she said.

There are many exercises that can be implemented to strengthen muscles that no longer do what they used to.  Snyder pointed out, “it’s very similar to doing leg exercises when trying to teach a physical therapy patient to walk again.  In order to get the muscles to do what they used to do, it takes work to produce the right sound or to chew and swallow safely and effectively.”

Mohney added that often times when patients are no longer able to communicate verbally, speech therapists will teach them sign language and other means to communicate using gestures or facial expressions.  “We build a communication system that works for them,” she said.  This may involve spelling words or even pointing to pictures.

Brown also mentioned using picture boards or even electronic equipment that can talk for patients.  ASHA notes that there are electronic devices that will actually provide voice output and others that display text or symbols.

Aside from difficulties in communicating, there may also be difficulty in understanding.  “I’ve worked with patients who used to be avid readers and are now struggling to understand what they’re reading,” said Stauffer.  “We can work with them on that.”

“If you notice a change and you’re becoming more forgetful or having trouble saying what you mean, if you’re missing appointments or forgetting to pay bills or noticing other cognition changes and you suddenly can’t do what you could previously, it’s time to talk to your doctor,” said Snyder.  

Speech therapy involves so much more than speaking clearly.  As the experts pointed out, this is a service that is needed at all stages of life and varies greatly from patient to patient.  If you or someone you know may benefit from speech therapy, it’s important to talk to your doctor.  “The earlier you take steps to get help, they better,” said Stauffer.