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In our society, there are an estimated 15 million people who suffer from swallowing impairment, also referred to as dysphagia. Approximately 60,000 people die each year from complications related to dysphagia. Swallowing difficulties can be caused by a number of things, including stroke, radiation therapy, surgery, accidents and neuromuscular diseases. Children and adults can be affected.

A new treatment available at St. John's Lutheran Ministries is called VitalStim. VitalStim therapy was originally developed and tested by Marcy Freed, a speech therapist from University Hospitals of Cleveland Health Systems. It is the only treatment of its kind exposed to peer review which has been reviewed and cleared to market by the FDA. The treatment is safe, effective and is covered by Medicare and most private insurances.

The VitalStim unit is a hand-held device that sends mild electrical stimulation to electrodes that are placed on the throat. The electrical impulses stimulate the nerves which causes the muscles involved in swallowing to contract. During the stimulation, the patient will experience a tingling, crawling and then a pulling sensation. That "pulling" sensation is the feeling of the muscle contracting. The repeated contractions will allow the muscles to regain the strength and function necessary for improved swallowing ability. Sessions are 45 to 60 minutes and results are generally noted after 10 to 15 daily sessions. Improvement in functional swallowing abilities is seen in 80 percent of patients treated with VitalStim.

The importance of being able to swallow normally is underestimated by those of us who have never had difficulty. Our society is one that seems to incorporate food and drink into every social event. Imagine the isolation individuals experience if they are unable to take part in such events because of swallowing impairment. VitalStim therapy offers a new approach for those who have not had success with other therapeutic interventions.

Kathy Satterfield, a speech therapist at St. John's Lutheran Ministries, has recently received specialized training and certification allowing her to provide this new treatment for individuals who have lost their ability to swallow normally. Satterfield is the only speech therapist in the Billings area certified to provide the VitalStim therapy. Call her at (406) 655-5658 for more information.

Additional information is also available at www.VitalStimtherapy.com.

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