News | 3 months ago

Giving Voice to Patients with Parkinson’s

Speech problems are an invisible symptom of Parkinson’s disease, and they can isolate someone who needs support. A new device, about the size of a Bluetooth headphone, is giving them their voice back.

When people with Parkinson’s disease get a consultation with Kara Simon-Kuhn, they are not seeking support for mobility issues or tremors as one may think. Simon-Kuhn, a speech therapist and certified speech language pathologist with Atrium Health Carolinas Rehabilitation Huntersville, treats an often-overlooked symptom of Parkinson’s: speech problems. Parkinson’s can cause people to speak more softly, sometimes unclearly, presenting challenges far beyond their voices.

This was the case for a recent Parkinson’s patient of Simon-Kuhn’s. Speech problems began to distance this patient from her close friends. She loved her monthly lunches with a big group of girlfriends, but she grew withdrawn when she realized that they couldn’t understand her. One of those friends came with her to meet with Simon-Kuhn.

“Many people who have Parkinson’s disease struggle with depression, and being able to speak more loudly can help with that,” Simon-Kuhn says. “I tell my patients that speech therapy can help them connect to support groups to talk with others, it’ll help them go see their grandkids for Christmas and have conversations with them.”

It’s a message she wants more people with speech disorders to know: Help is available. And now, because of Simon-Kuhn, a new speech device is available at outpatient therapy clinics at Atrium Health Carolinas Rehabilitation that’s not found anywhere else in the area.

Increasing the Volume and Clarity of Voice

SpeechVive is a prosthetic that fits over the ear, like a Bluetooth headphone. It creates a low-level noise – called a “multi-talker babble” – that causes people to speak over it. After just two outpatient appointments, patients can get fitted for this small, over-ear device. The result, for most, is an immediate increase in the volume and clarity of their voice. When Simon-Kuhn learned of it, she immediately worked to bring it to Carolinas Rehabilitation.

“While not everyone responds to this device, most people do speak louder and more clearly with it,” Simon-Kuhn says. “It doesn’t require any cognitive effort or at-home speech therapy exercises.”

Many people who have speech problems due to Parkinson’s disease don’t realize it. A decrease in dopamine in the brain can affect their perception of how loudly they speak. To them, they speak normally, but to everyone else, they’re speaking too softly to understand. When these patients speak at a normal volume, they feel like they’re shouting.

“It’s a constant story in my therapy office: The patient tells me their spouse dragged them here, but they feel their speech is just fine,” Simon-Kuhn says. “They think their spouse has a hearing problem. They don’t have a perception of just how softly they’re speaking.”

While the research for this device has been just for Parkinson’s patients so far, Simon-Kuhn has had success using it for other patients with mild speech problems, including some stroke patients.

Don’t Wait to Seek Help 

The goal of speech therapy is to recalibrate patients’ perception of a normal speaking volume. When patients first come to Simon-Kuhn for a consultation, she creates a personalized treatment plan. She develops goals with her patients, and they track progress together. Some patients come to Carolinas Rehabilitation two to four times a week for outpatient therapy sessions; some use the device; others use a combination of both.

Simon-Kuhn encourages patients to schedule a consultation as soon as they realize they have difficulty with speech, even if it’s mild. When patients seek help earlier, they can develop a relationship with a trusted speech therapist. Their initial meeting creates a baseline and they can learn what their options are – even if they don’t need them yet.

“By the time many patients come in to see me, they’ve already lost so much motivation because people can’t understand them. They’ve already started to give up,” Simon-Kuhn says. “It’s important to come in early to start speech therapy exercises or to get this device. Socialization is essential for maintaining good quality of life and keeping brains active.”

Simon-Kuhn’s patient whose friend brought her in for a consultation is doing much better. Outpatient therapy sessions restored her voice – as well as her fun lunches with friends. When a family emergency interfered with her ability to come in for therapy, Simon-Kuhn continued her progress with the speech device.

“She loves to go out to lunch with the ladies,” Simon-Kuhn says. “And now she’s back to talking and getting her confidence back. Even when she can’t come in for therapy, she can still have consistent help.”

Learn more about outpatient speech therapy programs at Atrium Health Carolinas Rehabilitation Charlotte, which has been named among the Best Hospitals by U.S. News & World Report and among America’s Best Physical Rehabilitation Centers by Newsweek.