Communication, swallowing disorders common in adults following stroke, other illness

Speech, language, and swallowing disorders are common following a stroke, head and neck cancer, and a variety of other illnesses and injuries in adults. And each May, Better Hearing and Speech Month provides an opportunity to raise awareness about how important it is to learn the signs – and seek an evaluation – if you have concerns about yourself or a loved one.

“Many people may not appreciate their ability to communicate until it’s lost,” said Megan Luttrell, Speech-Language Pathologist at Aspirus Outpatient Therapies in Calumet. “From having your basic needs met to nurturing relationships and earning a living, communication is at the core.”

Speech and language problems in adults can result from various causes. They include brain injury, stroke, and diseases that affect the brain such as Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis, and Parkinson’s disease. They can also stem from breathing problems, cancers in the head and/or neck region, and voice damage.

Speech and language disorders that may be acquired in adulthood include the following:

• Aphasia. This involves problems speaking, understanding, reading, writing, telling time, and/or using numbers. Often misunderstood, aphasia does not affect a person’s intelligence. The most common cause of aphasia is stroke.
• Cognitive-communication disorders. Problems with thinking and communication can affect each other. Some examples are difficulty paying attention, remembering, organizing thoughts, and solving problems.
• Apraxia of speech. Speech difficulties arise from problems planning motor movements. It is caused by damage to the parts of the brain that are involved in speaking.
• Dysarthria. Speech difficulties (e.g., slurred speech) due to weakness of muscles involved in breathing and/or speaking.
• Voice disorders. Changes in pitch, loudness, and vocal quality that negatively impact communication. These may result from nodules on the vocal cord, overuse/misuse of voice (e.g., yelling), diseases such as Parkinson’s or multiple sclerosis, and other causes.

May is also a time to spotlight swallowing disorders, called dysphagia, which are also treated by a speech-language pathologist. Dysphagia is another common side effect of numerous diseases in adults.

“A person’s ability to eat and drink is critical to maintaining good health and promoting recovery from illness. Food is also a central part of many social experiences—contributing to an enjoyable and fulfilling life,” Luttrell said. “Treatment can be truly transformative to a person’s quality of life and overall health.”

Dysphagia is treated in a variety of ways, including these:

• Helping people use their muscles to chew and swallow
• Finding better positions for people to sit or hold their head while eating
• Identifying strategies to make swallowing better and safer
• Advising people on their dietary choices, including softer foods or thicker drinks

If you or a loved one has concerns about a speech, language, or swallowing disorder, talk to your primary care provider about a referral for an evaluation. You can also call Aspirus Outpatient Therapies in Calumet at 906-337-7000 with any questions.