More than just words: How speech therapy can benefit you

Physical Therapy and Rehab
Speech therapist teaching woman with vocal exercise

Communication is a central part of your daily life. By expressing your thoughts and listening to others, you can hold conversations, express your needs and participate in social settings.

Speech therapy is designed to improve your ability to communicate. But there's a lot more to speech therapy than the words you say. It also helps you understand what others are saying, solve problems and remember ideas. What's more, it can address swallowing disorders that make it difficult to eat.

Here's how speech therapy can help you improve your communication, thinking and swallowing skills.

Using your voice

Speaking is a physical process. It requires air to make its way from your lungs and through your windpipe and voice box. This makes your vocal cords vibrate, which creates sound.

"In order form words from your vocal cord vibrations, the muscles in your tongue, lips and soft palate — the back part of the roof of your mouth — have to work together," says Katelyn Crits, M.S., CCC-SLP/CBIS, a speech language pathologist at Main Line Health.

If any part of this process breaks down, speaking becomes difficult or even impossible. This can happen if you have:

  • A motor speech disorder, such as apraxia of speech. This occurs when there is a breakdown and the signal from your brain to your mouth misfires so you produce the wrong sound. (i.e. "cat" becoming "tat").
  • Dysarthria, which is when the muscles you use to speak become weak, which can occur after a stroke, brain injury or neurological disease such as with multiple sclerosis (MS) or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).
  • A voice disorder, which occurs when there is damage to the vocal cords themselves, or to the larynx "voice box."
  • A tracheostomy or are using an artificial airway. A speech therapist will work with you to gain the strength to coordinate your breath support to produce speech, usually with the use of a speaking valve.

"Speech therapy can help you overcome the barriers that cause a communication breakdown, and strengthen muscles needed for speech itself," says Crits.

You may also do activities, such as working with oral musculature exercises and facial expressions, to improve your articulation and nonverbal communication means.

Speaking fluently and clearly

Language is complex. It relies on an ongoing connection between your brain and mouth to form thoughts and express them in a way that people can understand.

Due to injuries or health conditions, this process can become difficult. You might be unable to speak fluently and clearly. You might also have trouble communicating what you want to say.

Speech fluency and language problems can be a result of:

  • Aphasia, which may occur after a stroke or brain injury and impacts language access to one or all four of the language domains: speaking, reading, writing and understanding language.
  • Cognitive-communication disorders, which can occur when the area of your brain that's in charge of thinking is damaged, leading to problems with speaking, listening, social communication, attention, problem-solving and memory.
  • Fluency disorders, which impact the speed, rhythm and flow of your speech, such as stuttering (interrupted speech) or cluttering (quick, merged speech).

During speech therapy, you'll learn how to strengthen the connection between your brain and mouth. These might include tongue and mouth exercises, reading out loud or word retrieval tasks/games.

Speech therapists can also prescribe and help you work with augmentative communication devices, such as simple communication boards and computerized communication devices.

"Communication goes beyond just verbal means. During speech therapy, your therapist will work with you to restore your language abilities, but also train in other ways of communication such as: gestures, writing or the use of a communication board," says Crits.

Thinking and communicating

Communicating requires a significant amount of thinking. Language comprehension problems can make it difficult to understand what others are saying, leading to problems such as trouble following directions and difficulty following conversations.

Your cognitive skills are also a key part of going about your daily routine. Memory, attention, organization and problem-solving skills help you complete important tasks from grocery shopping to paying bills to being productive at work.

Problems with your thinking and communication can be a result of:

  • Receptive language disorders, which are when you have trouble processing or interpreting what others are communicating.
  • Cognitive-communication disorders, which are when the part of your brain that controls thinking is damaged.

Speech therapists can work with you to improve your ability to understand the words and gestures of others as well as comprehend reading materials. They can also help you improve your organization, memory and problem-solving. Approaches to building these skills include

Person-centered approaches to cognition and language therapy.

Eating and swallowing

Your mouth and tongue muscles also control another crucial life function — swallowing. In turn, this can affect your ability to eat.

When you chew food, your tongue must manipulate the food, then push it to the back of your mouth, sending it down your esophagus and into your stomach. Swallowing disorders (called dysphagia) can occur during any part of this process, making eating difficult. This can lead to nutritional deficiencies, aspiration (food or drink going down the wrong "pipe") and choking.

Dysphagia can occur due to:

During speech therapy, your therapist will watch you eat and drink to identify where the problem is occurring. They can also order tests, such as a special X-ray that's taken as you are eating to clearly see where the breakdown is happening. To address swallowing problems, they might work with you on exercises, recommend changing your diet consistency or teach you safe swallow techniques.

"Many people don't realize how complex swallowing is until there is a problem. Working diligently with people to regain the ability to safely eat their favorite food or drink that ice tea they have been craving, is one of my favorite parts of my job." says Crits.

Speech therapy: Customized approaches to improving communication

Whether your needs involve speaking, understanding others, thinking or eating, speech therapy can provide you with the tools and resources to improve your skills.

From exercises to supported practice to adaptive equipment, the activities done during speech therapy vary widely and are adapted to meet your needs. With the support of a trained speech therapist, you'll learn to communicate effectively, eat safely and engage in daily activities.

Next steps:

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