Northwest Health Winter 2010

Parkinson's Patients Learn to Speak Up

Softer speech and slurring can be symptoms of Parkinson's disease, making patients feel misunderstood and ignored. Group Health's treatment program can turn this problem around.

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Most of us are familiar with the symptoms of Parkinson's disease, such as tremors, rigid muscles, and a shuffling gait. But patients with this neurological disorder may also lose their facial expressions and their speech may become softer and slurred.

About the time Group Health member Fred McMullin was diagnosed with Parkinson's at age 59, his family and coworkers began asking him to speak up and repeat himself.

"Parkinson's patients often believe that their spouses need hearing aids," says Tomi McVay, regional manager of Group Health Speech, Language & Learning Services (SLLS). "Their brains adjust to their changes in speech and provide false feedback that they're speaking normally."

What patients do notice is a difference in the way others react to them. McVay says that people with Parkinson's feel ignored, misunderstood, and frustrated when others finish their sentences. As a result, they often isolate themselves from social situations.

Therapy Recalibrates Speech

Like many people with Parkinson's, medication reduced some of McMullin's symptoms but did little to help him regain his voice. So his physician prescribed LSVT Global Loud®, a speech treatment offered by certified therapists at SLLS.

The training helps the muscles and brain adapt to what initially feels like a very loud vocal level, but is actually a normal volume. Patients typically meet with a therapist several times a week for two months and also practice exercises up to 60 minutes, twice a day, at home. The exercises include reading aloud at a high volume and repeatedly voicing loud sounds.

Although there are other speech therapy approaches for Parkinson's patients, McVay says LSVT Global Loud is currently the only method proved to work. "It's very rare that a patient doesn't benefit from this therapy. It improves the brain's ability to function and gives patients a greater sense of control."

"It takes a lot of effort, but if you stick with it, it pays off," says McMullin. "My voice doesn't sound loud to me anymore. My speech is better, my facial expressions are back, and the therapy has improved my ability to swallow."

When and How to Get Help

It's easier to retain rather than regain muscle function, so if you or a loved one is diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, get help right away. If a patient's speech still has appropriate volume and articulation, SLLS can offer prevention techniques to keep speaking skills from declining.

Neurologists and personal physicians often send patients to SLLS, but Group Health members can also self-refer. "Many members are savvy online researchers who come to us because they discovered LSVT Global Loud therapy themselves and want to explore it," says McVay. Medicare members must have an authorized referral for speech therapy.

Our SLLS clinics are located in Bellevue, Bremerton, Everett, Olympia, Seattle, Silverdale, and Tacoma. See Speech, Language & Learning Services for location and contact information. Coverage varies by health plan. Check your coverage documents or contact Customer Service for more information.

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