How Does Aphasia Affect Communication?

February 08, 2023

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Imagine you’re speaking words that are clear to you, but your spouse looks at you as if you’re speaking a different language. Or, you’re suddenly unable to comprehend the meaning of a page in a book you’ve read many times before.

These are common symptoms for a neurological condition known as aphasia.

Language is a complex skill most of us take for granted. While many may believe language is simply recognizing or speaking words, it’s much more complex. We express our own words and sentences, ask questions, give commands, and communicate our inner feelings and thoughts. We also use our language skills to understand what others are saying and its subtext. Reading and writing are part of our language skills, too.

When any part of your ability to communicate is suddenly or slowly diminished (for example, due to aphasia), it can be a frustrating – even devastating – feeling.

What is aphasia?

Most language activity happens in the left hemisphere of the brain. When a stroke, head injury, infection or disease damages this area, the ability to express yourself, understand language, read or write may be impacted. This difficulty in communicating is known as aphasia, and almost 180,000 people in the U.S. develop it each year.[1]

What are the symptoms of aphasia?

The symptoms of aphasia can differ widely from patient to patient. It may occur suddenly from a stroke or traumatic brain injury or develop slowly due to a brain tumor or neurological disease.

A person with aphasia may:

  • Speak in short or incomplete sentences
  • Speak in sentences that don’t make sense
  • Substitute one word for another or one sound for another
  • Speak words you don’t recognize
  • Have difficulty finding words
  • Not understand conversation or what is read
  • Write sentences that don’t make sense [2]

How is aphasia diagnosed?

When symptoms of aphasia are first suspected, a physician will order an MRI or CT scan to identify the precise location of the brain injury. The patient will also be tested for ability to understand and produce language, follow commands, answer questions, name objects and have a conversation. If aphasia is suspected, the patient is referred to a speech-language pathologist for an in-depth exam of the patient’s communication abilities and a treatment plan.

How is aphasia treated?

Just as every brain injury is unique, each patient’s aphasia treatment plan is unique. Some types of aphasia therapy will focus on re-learning one word at a time; others may involve repeating sentences or entire conversations repeatedly. Aphasia therapy may also include teaching the patient to use alternate means of communication, such as gestures, pictures and electronic devices (e.g., smartphones and tablets) or group therapy in small group settings. The key to retraining the brain is intensity– the greater the effort, the more likely the patient is to recover lost language skills. [1]

Depending on the nature of the brain injury, an aphasia patient can show rapid improvement in the first few months. This is because the brain has a remarkable ability– called neuroplasticity –  to find new pathways for performing pre-injury tasks. Complete recovery may take months or many years;a great deal depends on the nature of the brain injury and the  patient’s age and health. Working with a speech-language pathologist will help the patient regain some or all ability to communicate.

How can family assist in aphasia recovery?

Because a family has daily contact with the patient, they can significantly help a patient’s recovery. Following these tips can help make aphasia patients more comfortable with their challenges and help them recover:

  • Simplify your conversation; use short sentences with simple words
  • Speak with them in adult language; their intellectual capacity is not affected
  • Patiently repeat key words when needed
  • Write down words to clarify your meaning as needed
  • Minimize distractions and background noise (e.g., turn down the TV when speaking)
  • Encourage communicating in ways most comfortable for them: visuals, hand gestures, writing or speaking
  • Move to a quiet room to speak
  • Give clear choices for possible answers; ask simple “yes” or “no” questions.
  • Encourage any type of conversation, including speech, hand gestures or drawing
  • Avoid correcting speech
  • Use visual cues when possible
  • Allow plenty of time to speak
  • Encourage participation in activities outside the home
  • Break down instructions into small and simple steps

How does aphasia affect daily life?

A person with aphasia is often frustrated or confused because they can’t speak or understand as well as they did before their brain injury. Imagine that everything you say sounds like gibberish to the person you’re talking to but is entirely understandable for you.

If you or a loved one suddenly or gradually notice diminished communication skills, please see your physiican for an aphasia evaluation. The sooner aphasia is treated, the better the chance of recovery.

For more information or to request an appointment for treating or evaluating aphasia, please see our aphasia treatment page or call 1-888-44-REHAB (73422).

[1] Communication Breakdown, How Aphasia Affects Language, NIH News In Health, June 2020

[2] Mayo Clinic, Aphasia Symptoms & Causes