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Speech Language Pathology and MS

By Matt Cavallo

Prior to getting into healthcare and working for an outpatient rehabilitation hospital, I did not know what speech language pathology was, nor what a speech language pathologist did. I think many people living with MS are also clueless like I was about how speech language pathologist may help them. I had been living with MS for nearly five years when I had a cognitive relapse that resulted in problems with word association and recall. At that point, I was referred to a speech language pathologist and how these specialists are trained to help patients deal with a multitude of issues related to MS. In this article, we will learn more about speech language pathology and the benefits for those of us living with MS. 
According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, speech-language pathologists work to prevent, assess, diagnose, and treat speech, language, social communication, cognitive-communication, and swallowing disorders in children and adults. Speech problems, cognitive issues and swallowing disorders are all common with MS. However, most of us living with the disease don’t know the benefits to working with a SLP. Let’s look at the different ways in which speech disorders can affect a person living with MS and how SLPs can help.
Speech, language, and swallowing disorders occur for people living with MS when the nerves controlling these functions are damaged. SLPs are trained to evaluate and treat the following disorders that may happen as a result of MS nerve damage: 
  • Cognitive-communication disorders such as memory, paying attention, organizing thoughts, planning, or problem solving. With MS, we sometimes refer to these types of communication disorders as “brain fog.” 
  • Language disorders such as expressive aphasia, where you know what you want to say but have trouble communicating it, or anomic aphasia, where you have trouble finding the words. 
  • Speech disorders occur when a person has difficulty making sounds correctly or fluently. 
  • Social communication disorders include problems communicating for social purposes, like greetings or asking questions, or not understanding the audience that can result in such things as acting socially inappropriate in a group setting.
  • Swallowing disorders (dysphagia) such as difficulty with feeding and swallowing, typically happen in advanced stages of MS, but can also occur in conjunction with other speech disorders.

If you have MS and are suffering from any of these problems, please contact your neurologist. Let your neurologist know your symptoms and ask for a referral to see an SLP. Your SLP will do a comprehensive evaluation. During the evaluation, your SLP will be able to identify and diagnose speech disorders that may be effecting you. The SLP will then develop a treatment plan. That treatment plan will be discussed with you, as well as, communicated with your doctor. 
Once you start your plan of care, you will meet with the SLP on a predetermined frequency. You will most likely take a standardized test at the beginning, during the progress reporting period (about halfway through your plan of care) and at your final appointment. The point of these tests is to measure your progress. 
While working with an SLP, you will develop compensatory strategies to manage your disorder. In my case, I had to overcome memory deficits and worked with an SLP to develop a list of strategies to ensure I completed tasks. While I haven’t seen my SLP in a long time, I still use those compensatory list strategies that I learned in therapy. When trying to manage life with multiple sclerosis, speech language deficits can be some of the most frustrating. Working with an SLP can provide lifelong strategies to manage those communication deficits which will lead to positive outcomes and an improved quality of life despite MS.