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What is Aphasia: Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis, and Treatment

Definition and Overview

Aphasia is a brain disorder that can affect a person’s oral and written communication skills. It causes a person to lose his ability to use language correctly and understand other people. It occurs when the part of the brain that contains language is damaged (usually by stroke). A person with aphasia often struggles to find the right words to use. They tend to use made-up words and switch sounds within words. For example, they may say, “wish dasher” when they mean “dishwasher.” Because they are not doing it on purpose (they are not even aware of it), they can get frustrated when other people do not understand what they are trying to say. This disorder can also affect their listening and reading skills. But it does not have any impact on a person’s intelligence.

According to statistics, there are about one million people in the United States with this disorder. It negatively impacts a person’s quality of life. Many opt to isolate themselves from friends and family. Most also suffer from anxiety and depression. However, there are available therapies that can help them regain their language skills.

Causes of Condition

The disorder can occur when the part of the brain that controls language is damaged due to injuries or diseases. These include stroke, brain tumours, and traumatic brain injuries. It can also develop gradually in people with progressive neurological disorders.

The initial treatment for the condition focuses on treating the underlying disorder. For example, stroke patients are treated to restore normal blood flow to their brain. Brain cancer patients, on the other hand, may undergo surgery to remove their abnormal growths. Speech-language therapy can be started right after these procedures.

There are two types of this disorder: fluent and non-fluent. A person with fluent aphasia can form normal-length sentences but often use made-up or incorrect words. Those with non-fluent aphasia, on the other hand, struggle to get the words out and speak in very short sentences. For example, they may only say, “want cheese” or “go restaurant.”

Key Symptoms

A patient with this disorder may struggle to:

  • Focus on what is being said

  • Give or follow directions

  • Interpret abstract language

  • Learn new information

  • Process visual information

  • Recall memories

  • Recognise a problem and come up with solutions

  • Stick to a topic during a conversation

  • Tell events in the right order

  • Understand nonverbal cues

  • Use appropriate facial expressions

  • Recall certain words

  • Read or write properly

  • Speak in complete sentences; most only use nouns and verbs

  • Use the right words; patients often use made-up or incorrect words

Who to See and Types of Treatments Available

Mild cases of the disorder may resolve without treatment. However, in the majority of cases, speech-language therapy is required. It is best that it is started right away to achieve better results. While in rehabilitation, patients will practice how to write and read aloud. They will also practice communicating with others and follow directions.

Therapy can be a slow and frustrating process for many patients. But it is important that they are fully committed to the program. It is also important that they are kept motivated to attend all their sessions.

Speech-language therapists help patients improve their abilities to communicate using various tools and techniques. These may include the use of:

  • Pictures of everyday objects, which can help increase their vocabulary. This also helps in improving word recall.

  • Picture boards that show everyday activities

  • Workbooks, which are used to rebuild patient’s reading and writing abilities

  • Computers - Many computer software can now be used to improve hearing, reading, recall, and speech.

Patients with massive brain injuries may not be able to fully restore their language skills. In such cases, therapy focuses on helping them learn new ways to communicate. These may include the use of pictures, gestures, and other visual aids.

There are currently no available medications for the treatment of aphasia. However, some drugs can be used to help improve the outcomes of therapy. These drugs are designed to replace lost neurotransmitters and improve blood flow to the brain in stroke patients. There are also drugs that can help the brain heal faster.

The success of therapy depends on many factors, such as:

  • How soon therapy was started

  • The cause and severity of brain damage

  • The part of the brain that was damaged

  • The patient’s age

  • The patient’s overall health

  • The patient’s willingness to participate in speech therapy

References:

  • Aphasia. National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. http://www.nidcd.nih.gov/health/voice/Pages/aphasia.aspx.

  • Harciarek M, Kertesz A (September 2011). “Primary progressive aphasias and their contribution to the contemporary knowledge about the brain-language relationship”. Neuropsychol Rev. 21 (3): 271–87. PMC 3158975 Freely accessible. PMID 21809067. doi:10.1007/s11065-011-9175-9.

  • Beeson, P. M., Egnor, H. (2007), Combining treatment for written and spoken naming, Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society, 12(6); 816-827.