Traumatic brain injury (TBI) can be devastating, with effects that can last for years – sometimes a lifetime – and affect every aspect of your life. According to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 2.5 million emergency room visits, hospitalizations or deaths are associated with TBI each year, and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) reports that half of all TBIs that occur in the U.S. are the result of motor vehicle collisions. Injuries don’t have to be impact-related – even the whiplash jolt of a car crash can cause TBI.
Traumatic brain injury survivors often have significant problems with communication, including cognitive impairment and speech deficits that can have a major impact on their ability to resume their normal lives and to live independently. For these patients, speech and language therapists play vital roles in the recovery process.
TBI and communication problems
People who experience a traumatic brain injury may have trouble forming words or thinking of the words they want to use; they may have difficulty following conversations or understanding spoken or written words. They may also have problems with reading, writing or spelling.
In addition to these cognitive and functional issues, there may also be physical problems involving the lips, tongue or facial muscles that help us form words. In some cases, muscle weakness may even impair a person’s ability to swallow or chew.
Because language involves a significant amount of perception-related skills, some TBI patients may seem overly emotional or devoid of emotion when speaking or responding to conversation, or they may respond inappropriately to conversation or social cues.
TBI and speech therapy
Speech and language therapy can play an important role in the neurorehabilitation of accident victims who suffer from TBI. When the brain is injured, important neural connections can be damaged, resulting in the loss of language skills. Speech and language therapists rely on different types of tests to identify the specific language deficits a patient is experiencing, and then custom-tailor therapy to help reestablish those neural connections and help accident victims regain their language-related skills.
Treatment plans are comprehensive and designed to evolve as the person’s skills improve. For instance:
- For accident victims with significant damage and who may be largely unresponsive, therapy focuses on helping family members learn how to interact with the person as well as getting the person to react to specific sensory stimulation.
- Once an accident victim is aware of his or her surroundings and responding, therapy can help improve attention span and reduce confusion, helping the patient understand basic information such as why they’re in a therapeutic setting.
- For people who have less severe injuries or who have recovered enough to have improved cognitive skills, therapy begins to focus on learning skills to aid in speaking clearly, developing and relaying thoughts, improving memory and solving problems, especially those requiring some form of communication. During this stage, the therapist may recommend the use of specific tools such as journals or a log to help improve memory and skills related to writing, reading and processing.
- Both group and individual therapy may be used to help develop and hone skills in all areas of speech and language processing, including small group dynamics to help the patient feel more confident, and to allow them to resume their normal activities such as work or school. Group therapy can be especially helpful for TBI patients who have difficulty taking turns speaking, following a conversation, interpreting facial expressions or tone of voice, or other aspects of social communication.
Because language is such a complex skill and affects so many aspects of day-to-day living, speech and language therapists often work side-by-side with physical therapists and vocational therapists to develop coping skills that enable the accident victim to adjust during recovery and to regain their independence.
Traumatic brain injury is serious, and therapy can be a long and involved process. Although many accident victims can eventually recover fully from speech-related impairment following a TBI, about 10 percent of TBI patients experience prolonged and persistent symptoms that can affect them for the rest of their lives.
When an injury occurs as the result of an accident, it’s important to make sure you work with an attorney who can provide you with the legal help you need to make sure you receive proper care. Navigating the legal process can be frustrating, and your own insurance benefits are limited in what they’ll cover. Your health is too important to leave to chance. Begin working with an attorney as soon as possible to protect your rights and your future.