Adult son speaking carefully to senior father

Trouble Communicating After a Stroke or Head Injury? It Could Be Aphasia.

For people who have suffered a stroke, life can be a daily struggle due to a wide range of symptoms, including the inability to communicate effectively, a disorder known as “aphasia.” Aphasia is an acquired disorder in which the regions of the brain that process language are damaged, impairing the patient’s ability to speak, understand speech, write and read. It’s a frustrating, real-life challenge for patients and their families.

While the most common cause of aphasia is stroke, it can also be caused by a head injury, brain tumor, infection or a progressive neurological disorder, like dementia. Approximately two million Americans have been diagnosed with aphasia, and nearly 180,000 new cases are diagnosed annually, which makes it more common than Parkinson’s disease, cerebral palsy or muscular dystrophy.

In many cases, the patient’s ability to communicate cannot be restored. However, there are treatment options that have been successful in improving the communicative skills for aphasia patients. For example, a speech-language pathologist can often help aphasia patients by guiding them through activities that teach new communication strategies in either a group setting or one on one.

At a more advanced stage of recovery, a vocational specialist may be able to help the patient prepare to return to work or school, depending on how well they respond and the severity of their condition. Plus, new technology-based treatments are emerging, including the use of touchscreen tablets and advanced software that targets specific language skills and modalities, and tracking the patient’s progress.

What Is Aphasia?

Aphasia occurs when a stroke, head injury or other neurological condition damages brain tissue, usually in the left hemisphere where language is processed. This is why it’s common for patients with aphasia to also experience weakness or paralysis in their arms and legs on the right side, which are controlled by the left side of the brain.

When aphasia is caused by a stroke, the damage occurs because the blood supply has been cut off to the affected region of the brain, depriving the tissue of nutrients and oxygen. When it is caused by a head injury, the tissue damage is a result of direct trauma to the brain. Persistent aphasia can also be caused by multiple concussions over a long period of time.

Symptoms of Aphasia: What to Look For

Because the effects of aphasia are behavioral, instead of physical, recognizing them can be difficult. If you notice any of the following, schedule an appointment to see a doctor for a more conclusive diagnosis.

  • Speaking primarily in brief sentences or incomplete thoughts
  • Using words that are unrecognizable
  • Saying things that don’t make sense or are confusing
  • Inability to understand conversations taking place in
  • Writing sentences that are illogical or don’t make sense

If your physician thinks you might have aphasia, a diagnostic imaging test like an MRI or CT scan can help determine where the brain damage is located and how severe it is.

How to Communicate With Someone Who Has Aphasia

For most aphasia patients, the disorder is permanent. In fact, if the symptoms haven’t improved within two to three months, a complete recovery is unlikely. In most cases, returning to work while experiencing the symptoms of aphasia is impossible due to the patient’s inability to communicate with co-workers, managers, clients and customers.

This doesn’t mean that relationships with others can’t continue to be strong and fulfilling. It does mean, however, that friends and family members will have to make some adjustments in how they communicate. For example, it’s helpful to get the person’s attention with a tap on the shoulder or a wave before starting to speak. Also, as much as possible, it helps to minimize background noise like the television or other conversations. Other strategies include:

  • Speaking more slowly and deliberately
  • Keeping the communication simple, without “talking down” to the patient
  • Simplifying your sentence structure and emphasizing important words
  • Maintaining eye contact and paying attention to body language
  • Not speaking loudly unless the person you’re talking to requests it.
  • Giving them time to speak and resisting the urge to finish their sentences
  • Using visual aids like gestures, drawings and facial expressions
  • Asking “yes” and “no” questions, as opposed to open-ended questions

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