Communication is essential for life. Hearing and speaking are so central in our everyday activities that most of us couldn't imagine what it would be like to struggle with these tasks.
"We take our ability to talk and listen for granted, unless a family member, for a variety of reasons, is challenged by the ability to communicate or a child has difficulties," Yampa Valley Medical Center speech-language pathologist Sally Hertzog said.
May is National Better Hearing and Speech Month, the ideal time to explore the ways in which speech-language therapists improve lives on a daily basis.
"It used to be thought that our role was just to help children pronounce words correctly," Hertzog said. "But we do so much more than work on articulation. For example, we help adults who have had strokes or head injuries and consequent cognitive deficits with memory, orientation, judgment and problem-solving or difficulty swallowing."
In addition, speech-language therapists work with children who have communication concerns. These problems can range in severity from minor articulation errors to significant deficits in the understanding and use of language.
Treatment always is customized, depending on the individual patient's needs. If someone is unable to communicate verbally, Hertzog may try alternative forms of communication, such as sign language or an augmentative device.
Sometimes, damage because of stroke or brain injury is so severe that patients even need help with organizing their days, planning and strategizing to get the most out of life. A speech-language pathologist often works in concert with occupational therapists to teach - or re-teach - skills of everyday living.
Hertzog also sees a variety of people with voice problems. Some are because of physical ailments such as nodules on or damage to the vocal cords, including paralysis. Another issue she encounters is dysfluency, better known as stuttering.
"Stuttering can really impact someone's life negatively," she said. "There are degrees of dysfluency and often certain environments or circumstances can affect the problem. Speech-language therapists work on identifying and avoiding stressors and teaching relaxation and breathing techniques."
The cause of stuttering is unknown, Hertzog said, though genetics and stressors are thought to play a role. Stuttering tends to start at a young age, when a child begins to develop language abilities, and is more common among boys than girls.
Then, there are the children who need help with pronouncing words. As children learn to talk, they acquire and master speech sounds that make up words. Often young children omit or substitute sounds in words, such as saying "lelo" for yellow.
A speech therapist helps a child learn the correct placement of the tongue, teeth, lips and jaw so that the child can produce sounds correctly and speech is more intelligible.
Some communication issues are easier to solve than others. A child who has autism, Fragile X syndrome or other significant developmental delay generally has considerable communication challenges. Early intervention and intensive therapy often is needed to help these children become effective communicators, Hertzog noted.
Speech-language pathologists also help people who have problems with swallowing, a condition called dysphasia. Various tests can be performed to evaluate why a person is having difficulty drinking liquids or eating solid food.
"Swallowing problems are often treated with strengthening techniques, positioning and diet modifications," Hertzog said. "It is important to ensure that food does not enter the lungs, as this can lead to pneumonia."
The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) estimates that communication disorders affect approximately 46 million Americans. Of these, 28 million have a hearing loss and 14 million have a speech or language disorder.
Speech-language pathologists often work closely with audiologists, health care professionals who specialize in preventing, identifying and assessing hearing disorders. Audiologists also provide treatment including hearing aids and other assistive listening devices.
One of the greatest predictors of hearing loss is aging. The other is exposure to loud noise during a lifetime. ASHA recommends limiting time spent at noisy concerts and turning down the volume on music systems - especially those with ear inserts.
For some of us baby boomers and veterans of rock 'n' roll concerts, this advice comes too late. As eighth-grade students, we stood as close as we could to the stage and to hear The Robbs belt out "Race With the Wind." A few years later, the Jimi Hendrix and Grateful Dead concerts rocked my world - and my ears.
I only can hope that these experiences don't land me in an audiologist's office one day.