“I know what it is, but I just can’t say it!” Sometimes it’s hard to find that word you’re looking for — whether it’s someone’s name, a common object or something else. But for people with a disorder called aphasia, it’s as if the words they know get mixed around constantly. This causes problems with expression and comprehension.
June is National Aphasia Awareness Month, so let’s explore this challenging condition.
Brain damage resulting from a stroke is the most common cause of aphasia. A stroke results from the bursting or blockage of blood vessels supplying the brain. This creates a reduction of blood flow to the brain, which deprives the brain of essential nutrients and oxygen needed to support brain cell life. If a stroke impacts one or both of the speech or language centers of the brain, aphasia can result. Aphasia can also surface due to a brain tumor, infection or degenerative disease.
A person who is affected by aphasia may:
■ Use words or sentences that don’t make sense
■ Speak in brief or incomplete sentences
■ Experience difficulty understanding conversations
■ Have trouble writing coherent sentences
■ Face difficulty with reading comprehension
Seek medical help immediately if you or a loved one experiences these symptoms. A form of aphasia or speech difficulty, like slurred speech, can be the first sign of stroke.
Aphasia presents itself in three different ways. Your health care provider may classify aphasia as:
■ Broca’s (nonfluent) aphasia. People with this form of aphasia speak in short sentences with missing words and have difficulty getting words out. Broca’s aphasia is often very frustrating for sufferers as most of them are aware of their communication difficulties. These persons can comprehend language better than they can speak or write.
■ Wernicke (fluent) aphasia. Fluent aphasia refers to individuals who communicate in long sentences that are hard to understand or contain incomprehensible, unneeded or incorrect words. Most people with fluent aphasia don’t realize they have a communication disorder. These persons have difficulty understanding written and spoken language.
■ Global aphasia. This is the most severe form of aphasia. It causes major comprehension and expression disabilities and will display characteristics of both Broca’s and Wernicke’s aphasia.
4. Treatment and coping.
Speech-language therapy is the most common form of treatment for aphasia, and this comes after the underlying cause of aphasia has been addressed. Early intervention and timely treatment is imperative for achieving maximum results.
A speech-language pathologist works with aphasic patients to regain as many previous language skills as possible or, with certain diseases and conditions, to maintain their current level of communication ability. Patients commonly work in a hierarchical fashion, meaning that they start with simple exercises and work their way up.
A large part of treatment is compensatory strategy training and education for both the patient and his or her family members. Compensatory strategy training may involve word-finding strategies, such as describing the item, using gestures, drawing the item or substituting for a different word. Education regarding aphasia can help the patient and family members understand what is happening and can help them process and cope with the new difficulties they may be experiencing. Education can also be critical for helping family members and friends know how to communicate with their loved one.
If you have questions or concerns about aphasia, contact your health care provider.
Monica Anderson is a Mayo Clinic Health System speech-language pathologist.
For more information, please go to mayoclinichealthsystem.org.
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