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Monday Medical: The many roles of a speech language pathologist

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Speech language pathologists help with much more than just speech. From swallowing to word-finding, they assist adults and children with a wide range of needs.

“There are so many hats we wear,” said Elisabeth Boersma, a speech language pathologist at UCHealth SportsMed Clinic in Steamboat Springs. “I can’t tell you how many people go to radiology for a swallow study and learn there’s a speech language pathologist there, and say, ‘But my speech is fine.’”

Below, Boersma describes the multifaceted role of speech language pathologists and when you might need to work with one.



Swallowing

The most common issue that Boersma sees adults for is swallowing challenges.

“When people have strokes, a neurodegenerative or neurological disease, or head, neck or esophageal cancer, they tend to have difficulty swallowing,” Boersma said.



Trouble swallowing is important to address as it can lead to serious consequences, such as aspirational pneumonia. Through a swallowing study, the speech language pathologist can determine what aspects of the swallowing process need help as well as the consistencies of food and drink a patient can tolerate.

“There are a lot of strategies we can implement to help the swallow,” Boersma said. “Sometimes, it’s helping someone build strength, and sometimes, it’s just figuring out what we can do to make the swallow safe.”

Cognitive deficits

The second most common issue in Boersma’s adult patients is cognitive deficit due to a traumatic brain injury, dementia or even the mental fog that can result from cancer treatment.

Patients may benefit from working with a speech language pathologist to practice word finding, problem solving and other tasks to improve memory, as well as to develop strategies to complete regular tasks despite the issue.

“A lot of the work is strategy-based,” Boersma said. “If we don’t expect memory to get better with dementia, we want to be able to help people help themselves, sometimes by recognizing they have to go about daily activities differently.”

A speech language pathologist can also help a patient identify what their specific deficit is, which can make it less overwhelming and easier to address.

“People may think they have a big memory deficit, but really it’s just word finding,” said Boersma. “We can determine what it is that’s impaired and how to use their strengths to help make life a little easier.”

Language disorders

Children are more likely to see Boersma for issues with language, such as challenges understanding and using language.

If a child has a hard time understanding basic directions, such as “put the box on top of the counter” or has trouble with noun-verb agreement, they may benefit from working with a speech language pathologist.

While many children may make some mistakes as they learn a language, they’ll usually grow out of those issues. “For kids with language disorders, the issue doesn’t just go away,” Boersma said.

Articulation and fluency

Boersma also works with children who have fluency issues such as stuttering, or articulation issues, in which they don’t say certain sounds correctly.

It’s important to address those issues, as they can make learning more difficult.

“For kids, early intervention is the best intervention,” Boersma said. “The sooner we can pick up on it and help out, the less likely they’ll be delayed in other skills.”

If people aren’t sure whether they may benefit from the help of a speech language pathologist, Boersma encourages them to reach out to their health care provider.

“If you have any concerns or questions, ask your doctor or call us here — we’re always happy to answer questions,” Boersma said. “It can be confusing to people. A lot of people don’t even know there’s someone there to help them, especially with swallowing and cognition. They don’t realize they’re not alone in what they’re experiencing, and that there is help.”

Susan Cunningham writes for UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center. She can be reached at cunninghamsbc@gmail.com.


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