Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (also referred to as ALS) is a progressive neurodegenerative disorder. In individuals with ALS, muscles become progressively weaker throughout the body due to the gradual death of nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord.
While the severity of symptoms that are experienced by patients with ALS can differ significantly on an individual basis, all individuals with ALS commonly experience some degree of speaking difficulties. These speaking challenges are a result of the muscles of the tongue, lips, vocal cords, and chest being affected by the progression of the disease. This difficulty in speaking is often referred to as “dysarthria.”
Because ALS is progressive in nature, speech therapy for this disease typically involves helping the individual to make adjustments in the various stages so that they can continue to communicate effectively. When it comes to neurodegenerative diseases, acting quickly is essential. The sooner speech therapy can begin after an ALS diagnosis, the better the potential outcome and ability to retain certain communication skills. Don’t wait to get support for yourself or a loved one, get started by scheduling your free introductory call today!
What are the Symptoms of ALS?
The signs and symptoms of ALS can vary greatly from individual to individual, and depend on which neurons are affected. The first symptom to appear is general muscle weakness that spreads and worsens over time. Some of the most commonly observed signs and symptoms of ALS are:
- Difficulty walking or performing normal daily activities
- Frequently tripping and falling
- Weakness of the legs, feet, or ankles
- Clumsiness or weakness of the hands
- Difficulty swallowing
- Slurred Speech
- Frequent muscle cramping or twitching in the arms, shoulders, and/or tongue
- Seemingly inappropriate laughing, crying, or yawning
- Changes in cognitive behavior
ALS commonly starts in the hands, feet, or limbs, and subsequently spreads to other parts of the body. As the disease progresses and nerve cells are destroyed, the muscles get increasingly weakened, eventually affecting such processes as chewing, swallowing, speaking, and breathing. There’s generally no pain associated with the early stages of ALS, and pain is uncommon in the later stages as well.
Does ALS Cause Speech Problems?
ALS results in the development of speech problems when it attacks bulbar neurons, which are the nerve cells that are responsible for delivering messages from the lower parts of the brain (bulbar region) to the muscles within the lips, tongue, soft palate, jaw, and voice box. Eventually, the muscles become weakened and tight, which in turn limits tongue, lip, and jaw movement. Bulbar motor deterioration can also impair swallowing, which can cause a buildup of saliva in the mouth, which also affects the clarity of speech.
The progressive weakening of the lung muscles has an effect on speech as well, as individuals with ALS often find speaking to be quite tiring, and they often talk less frequently or in shorter sentences.
As the muscles weaken, individuals with ALS may experience a variety of speaking difficulties that can make being understood challenging. These difficulties can include:
- Speech becomes slow, slurred, and unclear
- Difficulty managing and manipulating the pitch, tone, and rhythm of the voice
- The voice becomes increasingly soft and faint (as it becomes more difficult for the individual to take full breaths of air)
- Challenges related to pronouncing certain consonants
- The voice takes on a nasal quality
ALS also can result in increased fatigue, which often makes sustaining longer conversations difficult. Knowing and understanding these symptoms can make the adaptation process easier, and encouraging the individual to use shorter sentences with frequent rests may also help. Get your loved one started with supportive speech therapy by scheduling your free introductory call today!
Can Speech Therapy Help ALS Patients?
Speech and language pathologists (SLPs, also referred to as speech-language therapists or speech therapists) work closely with each individual to assess what difficulties they are facing, and how they can be managed or remediated. The speech therapist may be able to teach the individual certain techniques to help improve the clarity of speech and encourage the individual to effectively project their voice and help them maintain and use their own voice without assistance for as long as possible.
A Speech-Language Pathologist (SLP) plays an essential role in the individual with ALS’s multidisciplinary treatment team by fostering quality of life during this difficult journey by offering support in the area of communication.
As the individual’s ability to speak begins to deteriorate, the speech therapist will help the individual and their loved ones and caregivers by advising on what to expect as the disease progresses. They will determine ways for the individual to continue using their own voice to communicate for as long as possible. The SLP will also work to determine other potential forms of communication when speech is no longer a viable option. With modern advances in technology, there are many options available for assistive devices that continue to evolve.
The ALS Association recommends patients begin to work with a qualified speech therapist that is familiar with ALS at the earliest indication of speech or voice changes, or immediately following a diagnosis before changes appear.
At Great Speech, our network of speech-language pathologists is full of experienced and qualified SLPs who are familiar with the effects of ALS on speech. Each speech therapist brings their own custom therapy techniques and methods to meet the specific needs of each individual and how they pertain to ALS effects on their speech and communication skills.
Therapy exercises often include slowing the pace of speech and exaggerating articulation to improve comprehension for others. Exercises related to sentence and word phrasing can help promote energy conservation and tongue and diaphragmatic strengthening exercises also can improve articulation and voice projection.
Declining communication skills can have a drastic impact on the quality of life for individuals with ALS. Speech therapy is a valuable and empowering way for individuals with ALS to maintain a sense of self-advocacy and self-expression. Speech therapy for individuals with ALS will go a long way towards maintaining the quality of life and encouraging the individual on this difficult journey. Don’t wait to seek help for yourself or a loved one, schedule your free introductory call today!