Aphasia Affects Communication Skills Both Oral and Written

From time to time it happens to all of us. We’re trying to say something and the words just don’t come out; or we can’t think of the word we want to say; or the whole sentence comes out a jumbled mess of spoonerisms.

More than likely it’s a normal occurrence and our brains engage again rapidly. Depending on our age we’ll either call it a senior moment or a brain fart but, is it more than that?

“Aphasia is an impairment of language, affecting the production or comprehension of speech and the ability to read or write,” explains the National Aphasia Association. It can be caused by a stroke, brain tumor, infection, head trauma, seizure or migraine.

Always a sign of some other condition,, you’ll want to seek emergency medical care if you suddenly have difficulty speaking, trouble understanding speech, difficulty with word recall, speak in or write sentences that don’t make sense, speak unrecognized words or substitute one word or one sound for another.

“Aphasia can be so severe as to make communication with the patient almost impossible, or it can be very mild, NAA says. “It may affect mainly a single aspect of language use, such as the ability to retrieve the names of objects, or the ability to put words together into sentences, or the ability to read. More commonly, however, multiple aspects of communication are impaired, while some channels remain accessible for a limited exchange of information.”

There are several varieties and special features of aphasia each having their own pattern that corresponds to the location of the brain injury. I won’t name all of them here, but, if you’re interested in learning more go to www.aphasia.org.

Personally, I am all too familiar with aphasia caused by strokes and brain tumors, but reading about aphasia caused by migraines piqued my interest. Remember the story about a CBS news reporter who was broadcasting gibberish at the Grammy’s around six years ago? Critics speculated that she was drunk.

“I was aware that this wasn’t making sense,” Serene Branson said in an interview after the episode. “I started to get a really bad headache. I was starting to look at some of my notes and I started to think the words on the page were blurry. And I could notice that my thoughts were not forming the way they normally do.”

At first, doctors thought she’d had a stroke, or perhaps a TIA (transient ischemic attack) but after tests she was diagnosed with a migraine with aura referred to as dysphasic aura. Migraines with aura can have many symptoms; aphasia is not the most common of them and it’s typically temporary.

The Mayo Clinic says that if the brain damage is mild, the person may recover language skills without treatment.

“However, most people undergo speech and language therapy to rehabilitate their language skills and supplement their communication experiences. For aphasia, therapy tries to improve the person’s ability to communicate by restoring as much language as possible, teaching how to compensate for lost language skills and finding other methods of communicating,” Mayo Clinic says.

“Some studies have found that therapy is most effective when it begins soon after the brain injury,” they say. And that success is often achieved in group settings where people with aphasia can try out their skills in a safe environment. They also say that using computers can be helpful for relearning verbs and word sounds.

For those of us close to an aphasia sufferer, Mayo says we should simplify our sentences and slow our pace. Keep conversations one-on-one, involve the person as much as possible and allow the person time to talk without finishing their sentences or correcting errors. They say to keep a pencil and paper at hand to use a drawing or key word or short sentence to help explain something and to check for comprehension by asking for a summary of what was talked about.

“Recovery of language skills is usually a relatively slow process,” Mayo Clinic says. “Although most people make significant progress, few people regain full pre-injury communication levels.”

Kathy Hubbard is a member of Bonner General Health Foundation Advisory Council. She can be reached at 264-4029 or kathyleehubbard@yahoo.com.