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What Does a Speech Pathologist Do?

May 23, 2022 - Katie McCallum

If you or your child or another loved one is having trouble communicating, your doctor may recommend seeing a speech pathologist.

You may be wondering what to expect.

Teresa Procter and Maurice Goodwin, licensed speech-language pathologists at Houston Methodist ENT Specialists, are here to explain everything you need to know about speech pathology and speech therapy.

What does a speech pathologist do?

"A speech-language pathologist (SLP) is a licensed medical professional involved in the evaluation and treatment of speech, language, communication and swallowing disorders," explains Procter.

Several conditions and disorders fall into these categories, including aphasia, upper airway disorders like chronic cough, apraxia of speech, dysarthria, dysphagia, as well as dysfluency.

Speech pathologists work with patients in a spectrum of ages, from infants and premature babies to adults.

They also work in a variety of settings, including hospitals, outpatient clinics, school systems, assisted-living facilities, military facilities, inpatient care, group classes and in-person or virtual sessions.

You doctor may refer you or your child to a speech pathologist to help treat issues with:

  • Articulation – coordination and execution of speech and speech sounds
  • Language comprehension – understanding what others are saying
  • Expressive language – ability to communicate thoughts and feeling through words and gestures
  • Voice quality
  • Swallowing

"These can be changes acquired after a situation that caused brain or nerve injury, like a motor vehicle accident or sustaining a stroke," says Procter. "They may also occur as a result of progression of a neurological disorder or a health condition that affects the tongue or larynx (voice box). Additionally, some of these issues may be identified at birth."

Voice quality issues, in particular, can also result from voice overuse or injury in professional voice users, such as musicians or people who speak frequently for their job.

"Working in tandem with other health care professionals, speech-language pathologists evaluate, diagnose, counsel and treat people with these acute or chronic conditions that affect communication and swallowing, of which speech therapy is the hallmark of treatment," says Goodwin.

What is speech therapy?

Speech therapy aims to restore or improve a person's ability to communicate or swallow.

This is accomplished through an individualized treatment plan that specifically addresses the functional, social and professional needs that aren't being met in some aspect of communication or swallowing.

"Speech therapists look at how a person's condition impacts their ability to perform activities and participate in real-life situations," says Goodwin. "We use this information to structure a therapy program that addresses the individual's specific goals, supporting the program with our background knowledge in evidence-based practices and research."

Depending on a person's specific issue or health condition, an individualized speech therapy program may aim to improve:

  • Articulation and speech
  • Language
  • Voice and resonance
  • Fluency
  • Social communication
  • Cognition
  • Swallowing
  • Hearing

A speech pathologist can also counsel a person on the alternative communication techniques that can supplement or replace speech, which is called assisted augmentative communication (AAC).

"An ideal trajectory for therapy is to equip the person with strategies and tools that improve their independence and allow participation in daily life," says Procter.

What is voice therapy?

"For voice problems that cause a rough voice quality, specifically — such as vocal fold lesions, muscle tension dysphonia and the aging voice — voice therapy is an effective and often first line treatment recommendation from a laryngologist, a physician specialized in the care of the larynx or voice box," says Procter.

It's coordinated by specialists like Procter and Goodwin, SLPs who also have specialty training in the care of the voice.

For instance, a professional voice user, like a news anchor or singer, may benefit from voice therapy to maximize vocal health and identify harmful vocal behaviors. So, too, might someone with a chronic cough that's led to hoarseness.

The goal of voice therapy is to help you understand how to:

  • Improve the sound of your voice
  • Reduce the effort and fatigue with speaking and singing
  • Reduce and eliminate the pain that may be associated with speaking and singing
  • Keep your voice healthy
  • Limit chronic coughing and/or throat clearing

"The purpose of voice therapy is to help you find a better, easier way to produce voice which improves your voice quality," explains Goodwin. "It's individualized, so depending on your origin of hoarseness, symptoms and your goals, the duration of therapy can vary from a few weeks to up to six weeks."

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