Speech-Language Pathologists Can Help COVID-19 Survivors Experiencing Severe After-Effects
Fri, 05/14/2021 - 08:31am | By: Van Arnold
With an estimated 10-to-30 percent of COVID-19 survivors experiencing “long-haul” symptoms, such as brain fog and swallowing difficulties, University of Southern Mississippi (USM) speech-language pathologist, Dr. Steven Cloud, emphasizes the need to seek care from qualified experts who can help sufferers regain their quality of life. He shares this message in recognition of May as national “Better Hearing and Speech Month (BHSM).”
“The pandemic has posed so many challenges to all of us as a society, but one of the most persistent and vexing difficulties is that many people are having symptoms for months after contracting COVID-19,” said Dr. Cloud. “Some of these symptoms include brain fog, difficulty eating and drinking, and speech and language problems. These issues can affect the ability to return to work, to take care of one’s family, and to fully recover. Speech-language pathologists (SLPs) are professionals trained in these areas who can make a huge difference in recovery from COVID-19.”
How They Help
Speech-language pathologists can help people with, or who are recovering from, COVID-19 experiencing short- and longer-term difficulties in the following areas:
Many COVID-19 “long-haulers” are reporting persistent brain fog as a debilitating symptom following their bouts with the virus. This can prevent a return to work and impact their ability to tend to family responsibilities. SLPs can work with individuals to improve their memory, attention, organization and planning, problem solving, learning, and social communication skills — such as re-learning conversational rules or understanding the intent behind a message or behind nonverbal cues. The focus is on the individual’s specific challenges and regaining the skills that are most important to his/her daily life experiences and priorities.
People diagnosed with COVID-19 may experience swallowing problems that can place them at risk for choking or aspiration, which occurs when food goes into the lungs instead of the stomach. This may be the result of time spent on a ventilator, or it may be another side effect of the virus. SLPs use different tests to determine what happens when a person swallows and how the related muscles are working — helping a patient’s medical team, including the SLP, decide on the best course of treatment with the patient and the family. SLPs may recommend modified textures of food and drink for patients, treatment exercises to strengthen the tongue, lips, and muscles in the mouth and throat, and strategies to make eating and drinking safer, such as modifying the pace of chewing/eating, size of food bites, and more.
People diagnosed with COVID-19 are also experiencing speech and language difficulties. Some, such as those who spent a significant amount of time on a ventilator or who experienced low oxygen levels to the brain, may have muscle weakness or reduced coordination in the muscles of the face, lips, tongue, and throat — making it difficult to talk. Others, particularly those who experienced a COVID-related stroke, may experience a language disorder called aphasia —which makes it hard for someone to understand, speak, read, or write. SLPs work with patients through targeted treatment sessions to improve their communication and understanding skills.
Individuals with severe speech and/or language difficulties may need to find other ways to answer questions or to tell people what they want, through gestures with their hands, pointing to letters or pictures on a paper or a communication board, or by using a computer. These are all forms of augmentative and alternative communication. SLPs can help find the appropriate method to meet an individual’s treatment needs.
Where to Find Care
SLPs work in settings that include hospitals, long- and short-term care facilities, private practices, and patients’ homes. Many SLPs are also providing their services via telehealth at this time. If you or a loved one are experiencing communication challenges, Dr. Cloud recommends that you contact your primary care physician.