The term speech pathology seems simple on its face. In most people’s minds, it’s about helping people learn or relearn the mechanics of talking. After all, “speech” is right there in the name. However, according to Jennifer Scharringhausen, MS, CCC-SLP, Rehab Services Director at The Laurels of Toledo, speech articulation is only one small component of a speech pathologist’s job.
“I always describe speech pathology as a ‘shoulders-up’ therapy,” she says. “We certainly do help clients with speech in many ways, but our purview is much larger than that. We also treat problems with swallowing, or dysphagia, and even disorders related to brain function.”
Scharringhausen explains that the brain-related issues speech pathologists address fall into the category of either cognition or language. Cognition includes skills such as problem-solving, safety awareness, proper sequencing of tasks, and memory. Language—not to be confused with speech—involves the ability to hear and understand what people are saying as well as put one’s thoughts into words.
Appropriate candidates for speech therapy range from patients who have had a stroke or traumatic brain injury to individuals with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia—essentially anyone experiencing speech or language issues, cognitive deficits, or dysphagia.
Scharringhausen notes that patients with dysphagia, or difficulty swallowing, are at increased risk of developing pneumonia from the aspiration of food or liquid. “But speech therapists can work with these patients to strengthen the muscles involved in swallowing, teach them techniques that make swallowing easier, and modify their diet if necessary. For example, we might need to make their food thicker or softer, or possibly moisten it with sauce or gravy to help them swallow and eat at the safest possible dietary level—all while working to get them back to where we want them to be. We have all kinds of tips and tricks to help us achieve that,” she says.
Among the various therapeutic tools speech pathologists can use to help patients with dysphagia is neuromuscular electrical stimulation, which uses mild electrical impulses to stimulate and strengthen the muscles of the throat involved in swallowing in various ways. This state-of-the-art technology can also be helpful in treating the facial drooping that stroke victims often experience.
Speech pathologists have numerous options for addressing cognitive issues, as well. One commonly used, evidence-based technique is spaced retrieval. With this modality, patients are encouraged to recall information successfully over progressively longer periods of time. “For example, when you’re working with patients on the safe use of a walker, you might ask them, ‘Where do you put your hands?’ If they answer that they don’t know, you would then say, ‘They go here’ and show them where to place their hands. If they get the answer right, you wait for an interval and ask again, and you keep repeating this with longer delays until they get the answer wrong. Then you ask the question again at the last correct time interval. The idea behind this technique is to get patients to retain important information over longer and longer periods so they can learn and remember how to perform a task or sequence of tasks as safely and effectively as possible.
At The Laurels, the speech pathologists work closely with the physical and occupational therapists as part of a collaborative team. “If, for instance, a patient comes to us after a vehicle accident in which he or she experienced a leg injury as well as a traumatic brain injury, all three disciplines would come together in a complementary fashion, each addressing different aspects of the patient’s rehab and recovery—but all focused on getting the best possible outcome for the patient,” she says.
The Laurels of Toledo, located at 1011 N. Byrne Road, accepts Medicare, Medicaid, and all private commercial insurances. A physician’s order is required to obtain outpatient services. For more information, call 419-536-7600 or visit www.laurelsoftoledo.com.