To celebrate Parkinson’s Awareness Month, we bring you a special guest blog post by Cyndee Williams Bowen, SLP. Enjoy!

Parkinson’s disease (PD) is a progressive movement disorder caused by the loss of dopamine, a neurotransmitter. As dopamine producing cells in the brain decline in number, people with PD experience a range of symptoms. Gait, balance, and other movement related body functions such as speech, swallowing, and digestion are affected. Speech-Language Pathologists (SLPs) offer skills that can help with several of the changes experienced by people with Parkinson’s.

Here are five ways that SLPs can help:

1) Speech and Voice

Research shows that approximately 90% of people with Parkinson’s will develop speech and/or voice problems1. 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.

Dysphagia Therapy is an app to help skilled clinicians find the best therapy options for their patients.

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. My blog post titled Adam’s Quarter Board gives an example of a pacing strategy in action.

A simple but innovative tool for helping people with Parkinson's

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. I have recently reviewed Predictable 4 by Therapy Box and like it very much. Tactus Therapy Solutions also offers an inexpensive, easy-to-use solution in their customizable AlphaTopics – AAC communication board app. Conversation Paceboard by Aptus Speech and Language Therapy is another application I use and have recommended for people with Parkinson’s.

Whether you are interested in exploring low- or high-tech AAC options, it is important to remember a very important fact: they cannot and are not meant to replace the skilled services of your SLP!

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 SLP 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. Check out Mary Spremulli’s Voice Aerobics website to see an example of her group programs down in Southwest Florida.

Early Intervention is Best for Parkinson’s

It is important build a collaborative team to manage symptoms early in the progression of Parkinson’s disease. I am always a very happy SLP when patients seek assistance soon after diagnosis, before speech, voice, swallowing, and/or cognition are severely impaired. My goal is to help my patients develop compensatory tools and strategies to maintain and enjoy life at all stages of Parkinson’s.

What is your strategy for living well with Parkinson’s disease? I’d love to hear from you!

1) Hartelius, L., & Svensson, P. (1994). Speech and swallowing symptoms associated with Parkinson’s 
disease and multiple sclerosis: A survey. Folia Phoniatrica Logopedia, 46, 9–17.

Tactus Therapy offers great resources for Parkinson’s disease and other neurodegenerative conditions in our Knowledge Center. Learn more about how our AlphaTopics AAC app can improve speech clarity for people with Parkinson’s.

Cyndee Williams Bowen, SLP

Guest Blogger Bio

Cyndee Williams Bowen, SLP owns Bowen Speech-Language Therapy, LLC in Clearwater, Florida. Her proactive practice focuses on adults and adolescents with speech, language, voice, and swallowing. Cyndee has a special interest in working with patients with Parkinson’s Disease and is a certified provider of Lee Silverman Voice Treatment (LSVT) LOUD® and eLOUD®. She has no financial affiliation with any product or company recommended in this blog.