Speech therapy is the technique used to help you regain the ability to speak and communicate effectively. These functions may have been lost or impaired following a disease or trauma, such as a stroke, brain tumor or head injury. The loss of language skills (known as aphasia) is a big blow to the stroke victim, and its restoration is one of the most important goals of rehabilitation.
The therapy is performed by speech therapists, whose training also enables them to assist those with difficulties involving breathing, swallowing problems and muscle control (since these functions are driven by parts of the mouth, neck and throat also involved in speech). Speech therapists need the active participation of caregivers, family and friends of the patient to improve the chances for successful treatment and recovery.
The speech function is complicated. It involves the ability to use and understand language in its verbal and nonverbal expressions, and to correctly associate sounds and images with language.
Since specific parts of the mouth, neck and throat may have been physically damaged, the speech therapist assesses the breathing and swallowing problems and patterns, as any deficiencies here have an effect on speech abilities. This is particularly important for the vocal chords located in the neck.
The therapist will then devise a series of exercises to strengthen the tongue and other body parts. The physical exercises of rehab are intended to help you learn all over again the process of swallowing properly (which many stroke victims have difficulty with) and breathing properly while eating, as well as to restore the strength and quality of the voice.
In addition, physical changes—in posture or body position, for example—can already improve the ability to swallow while eating. The therapist may also recommend changes in the manner of serving food, such as making thin liquids thicker for easier swallowing.
In order to re-establish the ability to associate words with everyday sounds and images, the speech therapist will utilize appropriate audio-visual aids. The patient may also be asked to repeat words spoken by the therapist. If the speech disability is particularly difficult to overcome, the therapist may teach the patient sign language or use symbol boards.
Additionally, the speech therapist will include reading and writing in the rehabilitation program. Reading helps the patient’s brain connect words as written to the sounds as spoken, while writing strengthens the associations. All of these are essential elements in the restoration of speech.
The language disabilities suffered after a stroke, for example, may take a number of months —or years, in some cases—before recovery can be achieved. Because of the complex muscular and nerve systems involved, the process is long and slow. The therapist knows this, but it is best for the caregivers and the stroke patient’s family to have a full appreciation of the time frames involved and set their expectations accordingly.