Definition & Overview

Speech therapy, also known as speech-language pathology, is the field of medicine that specialises in the evaluation, diagnosis, and treatment of disorders that affect a person’s ability to communicate or swallow. The field has a very broad scope with speech therapists working with patients of any age suffering from different types of disorders. There is also a subspecialty that deals with paediatric cases. Speech therapy is usually performed in collaboration with other medical disciplines.

Who Should Undergo and Expected Results

Patients who should undergo speech therapy are those who suffer from language, communication, and swallowing problems due to an existing disorder. Communication disorders refer to all those that affect an individual’s ability to apply and comprehend speech and language as a means of engaging with others. These disorders range from speech delays, sound substitutions, inability to understand speech or inability to speak properly.

Examples of speech and language disorders include:

  • Childhood apraxia of speech
  • Stuttering
  • Articulation disorder
  • Dysarthria
  • Orofacial myofunctional disorders
  • Learning disabilities in reading, spelling, or writing
  • Mutism
  • Aphasia
  • Cluttering
  • Lisp

The disorders mentioned above are caused by a wide range of possible factors, including:

  • Developmental defects, such as cleft lip and palate
  • Hearing loss
  • Neurological disorder
  • Brain injury
  • Drug abuse
  • Vocal abuse or misuse

In some cases, however, the cause of the speech disorder is unknown.

Speech therapy is also necessary for disorders that cause dysphagia or swallowing difficulties, such as:

  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Muscular dystrophy
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Autism
  • Hearing loss
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease
  • Esophagitis
  • Cancer
  • Stroke
  • Post-polio syndrome
  • Scleroderma
  • Spinal cord injury

Speech therapy aims to improve the quality of lives of patients who suffer from the above-mentioned disorders. It does so by training patients on proper speech and swallowing, and by providing ongoing support and care in other aspects of their lives. Early detection and treatment of speech problems can improve the outlook for most patients and can keep the problem from progressing or worsening.

How is the Procedure Performed?

Speech therapy involves several different components and methods in addressing specific problems, including:

  • Phonation
  • Resonance
  • Fluency
  • Intonation
  • Variance of pitch
  • Voice and respiration

The different components of language and communication are also involved and these include:

  • Phonology
  • Sound manipulation
  • Morphology
  • Syntax
  • Grammar
  • Semantics
  • Interpretation of signs and symbols of communication
  • Pragmatics

The components that each treatment plan will involve depend on the specific type of disorder that causes the problem. As for the selection of the most appropriate method to use, this depends mostly on the age and circumstances of each patient.

For example, babies and toddlers suffering from early speech problems due to developmental problems are managed using the early intervention system, which is a series of services designed for children up to age 3. The goal of these services is to develop communication skills appropriate for the patient’s age. Identifying and addressing speech and language impairments at this age can help raise the patients' chances of being able to speak normally as they grow.

For school-aged children, speech therapy may involve special education services, also known as an IEP or Individualized Education Program, to educate them at the level and pace they are capable of handling.

In order to give holistic support and care, most speech therapy programmes also involve an IFSP or an Individualized Family Services Plan. This educates patients’ families on their unique needs and their role in the success of the treatment.

Various techniques are also used, including:

  • Whistling, which can help patients gain control over the muscles in the mouth, throat, and tongue
  • Toys and hand puppets
  • Voice synthesisers
  • Assistive technology
  • Speech games
  • Flashcards

There are also several tests that aim to diagnose and assess the patient’s improvement during the treatment period. Some examples include:

  • Denver Articulation Screening Exam – This is the most commonly used test for the diagnosis of speech disorders. It works by evaluating the patients’ pronunciation and speech clarity. It is most effective in children aged 2 to 7.

  • Early Language Milestones Scale 2 – This is a test that determines the patient’s language development and is used to quickly diagnose speech delays and language disorders.

Possible Risks and Complications

With speech therapy, the possibility or pace of success is not guaranteed as the success of treatment is affected by the cause of the speech problems, such as an underlying medical condition that may require other treatment before the speech issue can be resolved.

Speech disorders themselves can cause some complications. When left untreated, these can cause anxiety, nervousness, embarrassment, or low self-esteem. Patients may also develop a phobia of speaking in public and be at risk of depression.

There is also a risk of permanent disability depending on the severity of the disorder causing the speech problem.


  • “Speech Therapy.” Child Without Limits.

  • “Speech and Language Impairments.” Center for Parent Information and Resources. January 2011.

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