Speech-Language Pathologists Discover a Vital Therapy

Speech-Language Pathologists Discover a Vital Therapy

Combined with traditional therapy, VitalStim is gaining popularity in the treatment of swallowing disorders.

Written by Beth Phillips

VitalStim helps patients with disorders like dysphagia strengthen their muscles and recover safe swallowing function.

VitalStim helps patients with disorders like dysphagia strengthen their muscles and recover safe swallowing function.

Having lunch in the cafeteria, drinks at a restaurant or a meal at the family dinner table is not just about nutritional intake.

Throughout the world, mealtime is a social activity that gives people the opportunity to develop social skills, self-esteem and independence.

Tough to Swallow

Health care providers agree that good nutrition and adequate fluid intake is a prerequisite for maintaining and improving overall health. Problems chewing and swallowing can result in drooling, choking, pain with swallowing and difficulty taking medication.

Speech-language pathologists have begun to systematically evaluate and treat swallowing disorders like dysphagia to provide safe swallowing strategies to prevent illness, improve nutritional intake and allow for greater social participation, said Renée Bogschutz, Ph.D., CCC-SLP, clinical coordinator for the Speech-Language Pathology Program.

Dysphagia, or difficulty swallowing, can be caused by muscle weakness, trauma to body structures used for swallowing and neurological and gastrointestinal disorders. The National Institute of Deafness and Other Communication Disorders estimates approximately 15 million people in the U.S. demonstrate some form of dysphagia.

Traditional dysphagia treatments including exercises, safe swallowing strategies and diet modifications, have been widely used by speech language pathologists for years. But a relatively recent dysphagia treatment called VitalStim, paired with traditional therapies is gaining momentum.

“We do the exact same dysphagia treatments as we’ve always done, but we add VitalStim on top of them,” Bogschutz said. “It is similar to exercising at the gym – if you exercise you will strengthen muscles and increase motor control. However, if you exercise with added weights, the outcome will be that much faster and greater.”

Building Strength


VitalStim is a form of neuromuscular electrical stimulation that activates both muscles and peripheral motor nerves that coordinate swallowing structures. This allows for muscle strengthening and improvement in swallowing control to recover safe swallow functioning.

Not all people with dysphagia are candidates for VitalStim. People with muscle weakness or disorders of the nervous system benefit most, as the electrical stimulation directly targets the muscles and nerves.

Bogschutz said speech-language pathologists at the Speech, Language and Hearing Clinic use VitalStim along with other dysphagia treatments to target dysphagia in adults and children. Students in the School of Allied Health Sciences who administer VitalStim and other dysphagia therapies do so under the direction of a certified speech-language pathologist.

Speech-Language Pathologist Jamie Owen, M.S., CCC-SLP, has been working with 9-year-old Alyssa since May. Alyssa has Goldenhar syndrome, which caused facial abnormalities and paralysis on her right side, making it difficult for her to safely chew and swallow.

Difficulty chewing and swallowing has lengthened Alyssa’s mealtimes, reduced her daily calorie intake, limited her growth and negatively impacted her ability to socialize with her peers in the school cafeteria.

Alyssa receives dysphagia therapy at the Speech, Language and Hearing Clinic four to five times a week for 45-minute sessions. Alyssa often receives VitalStim during lunch to practice chewing and swallowing. Owen said she hopes that when Alyssa eats in the school cafeteria this year, she will have more confidence.

“Sometimes it’s just the simple things in life that keep you going,” Owen said. “For Alyssa to be able to eat with her friends in the cafeteria and not have her food pureed like baby food is critical. Giving people that independence and dignity back is so rewarding.”

For more information about VitalStim and other swallowing therapies, call the Speech, Language and Hearing Clinic at (806) 743-5678. All insurance and Medicare is accepted.


Story produced by the Office of Communications and Marketing, (806) 743-2143.

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Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences

Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences in the School of Allied Health Sciences consists of audiology and speech-language pathology undergraduate and graduate students interacting with faculty in innovative teaching, clinical and research environments.

School of Health Professions
School of Health Professions

From its first class of 18 students in 1983, the School of Health Professions has grown steadily over the past 25 years. With campuses in Amarillo, Lubbock, Midland and Odessa, the school now serves more than 900 students enrolled in 18 degree programs at the doctoral, masters and baccalaureate degree levels.

The school has a groundbreaking history from offering the first Doctor of Audiology program west of the Mississippi, to having the first Master of Science in Molecular Pathology in the country.

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