Speech disorders occur when a patient (typically a child) has trouble producing certain sounds. They can be broken down into different categories depending on the nature of the problem. Speech disorders include:
- Articulation disorders. The patient has trouble with certain syllables or pronounces words incorrectly to such an extent that it is extremely difficult to understand what is being said.
- Fluency disorders. These are characterized by interruptions in the normal flow of speech. Stuttering – an abnormal repetition or prolonging of sounds, syllables or words – is the most common fluency disorder.
- Voice disorders. These involve problems with pitch, volume or voice quality.
- Swallowing disorders can also cause trouble with speech.
Speech-language pathologists, commonly referred to as speech therapists, are able to evaluate a patient’s speech, language, cognitive, communication and oral/swallowing skills in order to diagnose speech problems.
Treatment, or speech therapy, aims to resolve the issue by focusing on the area in which the patient needs help. Strategies include articulation therapy that focuses on proper pronunciation and physical exercises that demonstrate how the tongue is used to form certain words, as well as tongue, lip and jaw exercises designed to strengthen the muscles of the mouth.
Speech therapy is critical in preventing a number of problems from occurring. Left untreated, patients have a higher risk of developing hearing loss, weakened oral muscles, excess drooling, breathing problems and feeding or swallowing disorders. The younger the patient, the more successful speech therapy tends to be.
Swallowing disorders indicate persistent problems with chewing and swallowing. The main symptoms are discomfort when swallowing, chest pain and the feeling that food or liquid is getting stuck in the throat or chest. Additionally, you may experience drooling, heartburn, nausea, wheezing, coughing, regurgitation, sore throat and a sour taste in the mouth.
Causes of swallowing disorders are diverse. They may originate in the esophagus and include diffuse spasm, an improperly relaxed sphincter, weak esophageal muscles, a narrow esophagus or esophageal ring, the presence of foreign bodies, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), a hardening of the tissues called scleroderma and tumors.
In addition, the muscles and nerves responsible for swallowing can weaken as a result of neurological disorders, pharyngeal diverticula or cancer. Children may have difficulty swallowing if they suffer from certain nervous system disorders or a cleft palate.
The treatment for a swallowing disorder is dependent on the cause. Treatment typically involves medications, swallowing exercises or surgery. For those whose swallowing issues are caused by GERD, lifestyle changes may prevent acid reflux, which in turn can help reduce swallowing difficulties. These changes include:
- Avoiding alcohol, caffeine and spicy foods
- Eating smaller and more frequent meals
Those with severe swallowing difficulties may require hospitalization with intravenous feeding to prevent malnutrition and excess weight loss.
Swallowing therapy is also recommended, which requires you to work with a speech-language pathologist.
Your speech-language pathologist will provide you with exercises to help train your muscles to chew and swallow correctly. They will teach you how to sit or hold your head when you eat and provide you with strategies to make you swallow better and safer.