May is Better Speech and Hearing Month: Let’s talk about speech therapy

by Steven Mazzafield, Speech-Language Pathologist at Veterans Memorial Hospital

“I don’t need a Speech Therapist. I talk fine!” You would be surprised how often I hear this when I go in to see a new patient in the hospital.

When most people think about a Speech Therapist, they typically imagine someone who works with young children in a school, teaching them to say specific sounds such as the “s” and “r” sounds. And you would be right to think this; 51% of Speech-Language Pathologists, or SLPs for short, work in a school compared to only 39% that work in a medical setting such as a hospital or nursing home.

While it is true that SLPs in the school focus mostly on helping children to say specific sounds, this is called articulation therapy, they also help with a variety of other language skills including building vocabulary, grammar, reading, writing, and spelling. SLPs can also help children and adults who have a stutter, or fluency disorder, by teaching them different ways to talk in order to stop the stutter before it starts.

Children with Autism benefit greatly from working directly with an SLP. Autism is a spectrum disorder which means some children will have more difficulty than others. Children with Autism have difficulty with social skills and communicating with others, but it can also affect a child’s ability to learn and develop language. Some children with Autism are nonverbal, meaning they are unable to say any or only a few words. For these children, an SLP can help create an alternative communication system by teaching them to point to pictures or use a computer or ipad to speak for them.

Speech-Language Pathologists in the medical setting help many people with all kinds of different problems across all age groups. When people think about a Speech Therapist in the hospital, they probably imagine someone who works with stroke patients, helping them to talk. Although slurred speech along with facial droop can be one of the first signs of a stroke, not all strokes cause difficulty talking. You are more likely to develop aphasia, meaning difficulty talking or understanding language, when a stroke occurs on the left-side of the brain. A Stroke can be mild resulting in only a little difficulty thinking of words, or more severe resulting in complete loss of speech and language.

Most people are unaware of this, but it is very common to have dysphagia, or swallowing difficulty after a stroke. SLPs are experts in the diagnosis and treatment of swallowing problems. One of the tools we use to assess a patient’s swallowing problem is a video swallow study. The video swallow study is a real-time video recording of the swallow which helps us to see if any food or liquid is going down the wrong way, and if any techniques can help prevent the problem. Once the cause of the swallowing problem has been identified, an SLP teaches the patient exercises to improve the strength of the swallowing muscles. Swallowing problems can also occur from different diseases of the nervous system including Multiple Sclerosis, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, Alzheimer’s Dementia, and Parkinson’s disease to name a few.

In addition to swallowing problems, SLPs help Parkinson’s patients improve their speech and voice by teaching them to talk louder using the Lee Silverman Voice Treatment for Parkinson’s disease, or LSVT LOUD. LSVT LOUD is an evidenced-based treatment for Parkinson’s disease that has been shown to have lasting positive effects on a person’s speech. Speaking of voice, SLPs provide voice therapy for people with voice disorders, which typically occur due to overuse of the voice or neurological conditions.

SLPs also provide cognitive rehabilitation for difficulties with memory, attention, problem solving, organization, and planning that may result from a variety of conditions including traumatic brain injury, stroke, dementia, or diabetes. Cognitive retraining begins with a brain test to identify problem areas and severity of the deficits. After identifying problem areas, SLPs teach patients strategies to work around their deficits; for example, memory strategies, or provide opportunities to improve a specific skill using worksheets, games, and other therapy activities.

In addition to working with patients in the hospital, who tend to be older adults, patients are also seen in the outpatient clinic which includes adolescents and young children as well as older adults. Between the two settings, working with adults and children, no one day is ever the same and always challenged to learn something new.

If you, or a family member, is having difficulty with speech, language, voice, swallowing, or cognition, call Steven Mazzafield, Speech Pathologist at Veterans Memorial Hospital at  563-568-3411 to schedule an evaluation.