Brain Stem Stroke: A Case Study
This case study was originally posted in Advance for Speech & Hearing on November 14, 2016. Retrieved from http://www.advanceweb.com/
Author: Gabrielle Zimmer, MS, CCC-SLP
Brain Stem Stroke: A Case Study
Rebuilding communication one subsystem at a time.
Where do you start when a client understands everything that is said but has no way to communicate back to you? He cannot speak, gesture or write. How can you improve his quality of life?
As speech-language pathologists in the outpatient department at Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation, we frequently encounter challenging situations and provide treatment for medically complex adults who have suffered acquired and traumatic brain injuries (TBIs). To maximize each client’s potential, collaboration with an interdisciplinary team, including physicians, therapists and other specialists, is crucial. The implementation of a variety of treatment approaches based on the individual needs of the client is also critical.
An example of a complex case in which collaboration was necessary is the case of Ben, a 38-year-old male who began feeling right upper extremity twitching and slurred speech. This evolved and progressed and an MRI revealed a severe brainstem stroke. Ben was ultimately diagnosed with Locked-In Syndrome. He was unable to move any part of his body, although his receptive and expressive language and cognition remained entirely intact. He remembers hearing and understanding all that was being said at his bedside, but he was unable to express himself in any way with the exception of eye blinking. Ben recounted his inability to make requests such as to turn on the fan, feed him ice chips or scratch an itch.
Ben completed acute inpatient rehabilitation at Kessler and progressed to a state in which he could move his neck and to a small degree his mouth, lips and tongue. By using the eye gaze access feature of a high technology augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) speech generating device, Ben was able to demonstrate to his family members for the first time since his stroke that “he was in there.” This allowed him to communicate his wants and needs, ask questions and express concerns. He was an excellent candidate for an AAC device, but strived to speak in his own voice. Ben achieved his swallowing goals and was beginning to target phonation when he was discharged from inpatient therapy and transitioned to my care in the outpatient department.
When Ben started outpatient therapy, he had significantly reduced breath support, severely reduced tongue, lip, cheek and jaw movement, and was aphonic and unintelligible. He had difficulty changing his facial expressions to convey emotion and was unable to manage his saliva. He required 24/7 supervision and assistance and was unable to verbally communicate his basic wants and needs. Initially, I trialed traditional approaches to improve articulatory movement as well as voice exercises but quickly felt like we were hitting a wall. I felt it was necessary to break down and target each speech subsystem to maximize his abilities.
I sought an evaluation from an otolaryngologist who specializes in voice disorders to examine the integrity of his vocal cord movement which proved to be within normal limits. The difficulty appeared to be with the coordination of inhalation and exhalation for productive voicing as well as a resonance disorder due to limited velar movement. Volitional diaphragmatic breathing was challenging and most of his air was lost through his nasal cavity.
Knowing that his vocal cords were functioning properly was promising for the goal of achieving consistent voicing going forward. We used a spirometer for visual feedback and to target consistent volitional inhalation and exhalation for speech. Additionally, we consulted with a prosthodontist to further examine Ben’s palatal movement and to assess his candidacy for prosthesis. Ben was deemed a viable candidate and use of the palatal lift helped improve voicing and increased his volume. Now that voicing was becoming more consistent and breath support was improving, our goals shifted to articulatory movement and intelligibility.
Initially, Ben attempted to mouth single letters and words for lip reading. With such poor movement of his cheeks, lips and tongue, success was inconsistent and extremely frustrating for both Ben and his family. A tactile approach was deemed necessary for this case. I implemented two excellent therapeutic interventions – the Beckman Oral Motor Protocol and oral placement therapy with Talk Tools. The Beckman Oral Motor Protocol provided assisted movement to activate muscle contraction and movement against resistance to build strength and increased control of movement for the lips, cheeks, jaw, and tongue.
This was done in conjunction with a variety of hierarchical oral placement therapy techniques with Talk Tools, such as the jaw grading bite block, bubble blowing, horn blowing, velar grading and straw hierarchies, among others.
Improved Articulatory Movement
The initial tactile-kinesthetic feedback was crucial and contributed to improved articulatory movement. All oral placement tasks were paired with functional speech tasks. Ben began to increase intelligibility starting at the single word level, progressed to the basic phrase level and subsequently advanced to the sentence level. In addition, although Ben was tolerating a regular solid diet with thin liquids, he had self-established habitual patterns to compensate for his limited tongue and lip movement. The treatment approaches that were initially sought to improve his articulatory movement for speech simultaneously improved his feeding and swallowing function as well.
Ben progressed from an aphonic state to demonstrating increasingly controlled respiration for consistent phonation at the conversation level. Focus shifted to improve volume, pitch and vocal quality. His articulatory movement was severely limited, and he improved to the point where he produced intelligible sentences. Carryover was targeted outside of the speech therapy treatment room with collaboration between his physical and occupational therapists. He targeted speech goals to maintain phonation and intelligibility in different positions such as standing upright, lying on his back and during facilitated movement.
This same person who initially relied on an AAC device was now able to gradually participate in conversation using his own voice and his personality emerged. I began to learn about Ben’s interests, such as his skill at trivia, opinions on television shows and sarcastic sense of humor. He achieved major milestones, which included his abilities to participate and self-advocate in doctors’ appointments, hold conversations with his wife out to dinner and contribute to group conversation. His independence increased and required less caregiver support as he could call for help if needed.
In a complex case like Ben, utilizing a variety of treatment approaches was crucial to his progress and success. It is important to create individualized treatment programs that are comprehensive and functional for the client. The key to maximizing the client’s abilities is maintenance of well-rounded continuing education, implementation of strong evidence-based practice, collaboration within an interdisciplinary rehabilitation team and daily completion of a home exercise program for carryover outside of the therapy setting. This is in combination with time and dedication from the client and their support system. Ben said it best, “You can sit back and wait for a miracle, or you can make one happen. Let’s make a miracle!”
1: Beckman, D.A., (1994, Rev. 2010). Beckman Oral Motor Assessment and Intervention. Published by Beckman & Associates, Inc., 620 N Wymore Rd, Suite 230, Maitland, Florida 32751-4253. www.beckmanoralmotor.com
2: Rosenfeld-Johnson, S. (2014). A Therapist Guide to Rehabilitative Feeding and Speech Techniques for Teens and Adults: TalkTools, Charleston, SC.
Gabrielle Zimmer, MS, CCC-SLP is a speech-language pathologist and clinical specialist at Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation in West Orange, New Jersey.
Top-ranked by U.S.News & World Report for the 23rd consecutive year, Kessler Institute is the only rehabilitation hospital in New Jersey to be named to the prestigious list of “America’s Best Hospitals” and is the leading center of its kind in the East.