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At a Loss for Words: Aphasia and Dysarthria

April 11, 2022

What would you do if you suddenly couldn’t speak? Or if you could no longer understand what people say to you? Most of us give little thought to our ability to communicate clearly and easily. When this ability is taken away, however, the impact can be profoundly life-changing.

Aphasia and dysarthria are types of communication disorders that often occur after a stroke or another form of brain damage. People affected by aphasia and dysarthria often experience feelings of frustration, anger, confusion, and isolation. These disorders can take a toll on day-to-day activities – including work and school – as well as personal relationships. Losing the ability to communicate with family members, friends and others can be devastating.

Aphasia

Aphasia affects a person’s ability to use and/or understand language. Causes of aphasia include strokes, head trauma, brain tumors, dementia, and other medical conditions. More than 100,000 Canadians live with this disorder, including one-third of stroke survivors.

There are two types of aphasia:

  • People who have receptive aphasia have difficulty understanding spoken and written words.
  • People who have expressive aphasia may understand what others are saying, but they have trouble communicating. Their words might be mixed up, nonsensical, or completely different than what they intended to say. They may have difficulty saying more than one word or phrase at a time.

People can have one or both types of aphasia. Both types interfere with reading, writing, use of numbers, and self-expression. They can be mild or severe, and temporary or long-lasting (or permanent), depending on the location and amount of damage to the brain.

Dysarthria

Dysarthria is a speech disorder resulting from paralysis, muscle weakness, or other problems with the muscles we use to speak – the ones in our face, tongue, lips and throat, and the muscles that help us breathe.

Dysarthria can affect how someone pronounces words, the volume of their voice, and the speed of their speech (too fast or too slow). It can cause people to “slur,” mumble or sound hoarse, choppy, nasal or breathy.

The causes of dysarthria include strokes, head trauma, brain tumors, Parkinson’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), multiple sclerosis and other medical conditions. Working with a speech-language pathologist to improve the movement of the lips, tongue, etc., may reduce the impact of dysarthria.

Communication tips

If you know someone who has a communication disorder such as aphasia or dysarthria, try these strategies:

  • Reduce ambient noise and distractions (TV, radio, etc.).
  • Ensure there is good lighting, and sit or stand where you can see each other.
  • Get your loved one’s attention before you start talking.
  • Talk about one topic or idea at a time.
  • Speak clearly, slowly (but avoid treating your loved one like a child).
  • Use gestures and facial expressions as it may help them understand.
  • Keep sentences simple and concise.
  • Ask yes/no questions or give options, rather than asking open-ended questions.
  • Repeat words or phrases as needed.
  • Don’t interrupt when your loved one speaks, and avoid correcting them.
  • Paraphrase what you think they are saying.
  • Watch their body language for clues about what they mean.
  • Try other methods of communication, such as writing, drawing, or pointing.
  • Ask your loved one’s physician to refer you to a Speech-Language Pathologist for support and advice.
  • Look for a support group in your community.
  • Contact the Aphasia Institute for resources and other supports

Additional resource

Heart & Stroke: Communication

 

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