Parkinson’s disease is a progressive movement disorder caused by the loss of dopamine, a neurotransmitter. People with PD experience a range of symptoms such as gait, balance, and other movement related body functions such as speech, swallowing, and digestion are affected. Speech and Language Therapists offer skills that can help with several of the changes experienced by people with Parkinson’s.

Here are five ways that Speech and Language Therapists can help:

1) Speech and Voice

Research shows that approximately 90% of people with Parkinson’s will develop speech and/or voice problems. Soft speech is a common problem; the person with PD may not even realize their voice is so quiet. Intensive, evidence-based exercise programs like Lee Silverman Voice Treatment (LSVT) LOUD® or the Parkinson Voice Project can help restore the voice to normal levels. Follow the links to learn more about these programs and locate trained SLPs who offer them in your area.

2) Swallowing

The same structures involved in speech and voice production are also part of the swallowing mechanism. When the muscles of the aerodigestive tract become deconditioned and the vocal folds become bowed, the risk of developing aspiration pneumonia increases. SLPs assess, diagnosis, and treat swallowing disorders (dysphagia) and help improve quality of life in people with Parkinson’s.

3) Cognition

Changes in memory, attention, organization, and problem solving may develop due to medication side effects and/or progression of Parkinson’s. SLPs provide education and train strategies to help people with Parkinson’s and their care partners cope with these changes.

4) Compensation

Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) devices and strategies may be helpful to people with Parkinson’s at all stages of the disorder. Both low-tech and high-tech AAC options are available. The approaches chosen by the SLP will depend upon the unique needs of the individual.

Low-tech AAC options may include training in the use of gesture or pacing to overcome speech dysfluencies, or stuttering. Finger tapping or the use of pacing strips or boards may help to slow speech rate.

Many high-tech AAC applications are available on the market. Solutions may be as complex as dedicated speech generating devices, such as those offered by Tobii DynaVox, or as simple as the use of iOS or Android-based apps on a patient’s iPad, tablet, or phone.

5) Maintenance

The saying use it or lose it is meaningful when your goal is to live well with a progressive disorder such as Parkinson’s. It is easier to strengthen and maintain declining functions than it is to rehabilitate them later. Early intervention allows us to address speech, voice, swallowing, and cognition while they are still functional. The patient and the Speech and Language Therapist can work together to establish a home exercise program to preserve function, locate educational resources, and identify opportunities for the patient and caregivers to engage socially.