Illness, disease, injury, neurological disorders, or certain conditions that are present at birth can affect your ability to swallow and or communicate. Speech therapy is a rehabilitation option that can help people regain skills or learn to communicate or swallow in a different way. Additionally, speech therapy can address social communication, behavior skills, and thinking skills needed for independent living. Speech therapy may be helpful for children and adults with a variety of conditions including premature birth, cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, Parkinson’s Disease, heart disease, Alzheimer’s Disease, stroke, traumatic brain injury, spinal cord injury, multiple sclerosis, amyotrophic sclerosis (ALS, Lou Gehrig’s Disease), cancer, and Huntington’s Disease. Speech therapy may also be helpful for people with vocal cord nodules or polyps, cleft lip or palate, missing teeth, or poorly fitting dentures.
Swallowing is important for receiving adequate nutrition and fluids in order to sustain good health and adequate weight. Swallowing disorders can cause coughing, gurgling, choking, or drooling. Swallowing disorders may lead to dehydration, poor health, weight loss, or life-threatening lung infections, including pneumonia. In addition to health concerns, some people with swallowing difficulties may be reluctant to eat in the presence of others.
A Speech-Language Pathologist, informally called a speech therapist, can evaluate and treat swallowing and communication limitations. Speech therapists are professionals that enter the field after earning masters or doctoral degrees in speech therapy. Following their education, they must complete fellowships and pass a national examination. Their goal is to help you regain functional skills or learn compensation techniques to help you swallow, communicate, and live as safely and independently as possible.
Your speech therapist will evaluate your baseline strengths, limitations, and independent functional skill level. Your muscles that are used for swallowing and talking will be assessed. Your speech therapist will observe your muscle movements, behavior, and posturing during eating, swallowing, and speaking. Special evaluations, such as a video fluoroscopy, may be used to determine the effectiveness of your swallow. Cognitive tests may be used to assess comprehension, memory skills, and problem solving. Your treatment plan will reflect your areas of concern and focus on your priorities. The evaluation results and your input are used to create an individualized treatment plan with specific short term and long term goals.
Speech therapy may target specific muscles in the face, mouth, and throat to gain the oral motor control necessary for swallowing or speaking. This may be achieved with exercises or stimulation techniques. You may learn compensation techniques, such as tilting your head forward when you swallow, or receive recommendations for food preparation to help with swallowing, such as using thickeners.
If your limitations are permanent or severe, you may require assistive devices. There are numerous assistive communication devices, ranging from picture boards that require pointing or an eye gaze, to keyboard devices to computerized equipment that can simulate vocalization. Your speech therapist can work with a child’s school system, a state’s assistive technology program, or an insurance provider to find the most appropriate equipment.
Speech pathologists work as a team member with a person’s school, rehabilitation team, medical professionals, or employer. They are dedicated to helping you attain proper nutrition and the ability to express yourself and comprehend others. Speech pathology may help you advance your skills, increase your safety and independence, and improve your quality of life.