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Communication difficulties

Communication difficulties are often caused by a stroke and include:

  • Aphasia – a form of brain damage which affects your ability to understand or produce words
  • Dysarthria – a physical issue where the muscles you use to speak are weak or not working properly
  • Cognitive difficulties – changes in how you think may make it more difficult to communicate.

Breathlessness can also make it difficult to speak clearly.

What is aphasia?

Aphasia is a common effect of stroke, affecting around one in three people who have had a stroke.

Aphasia means that a part of your brain which controls language has been damaged. There are two main parts of the brain which may be affected:

  • Broca’s area – This part of the brain controls how you produce language and speech. If it is damaged, it may be more difficult to speak or write.
  • Wernicke’s area – This part of the brain controls how you understand language. If it is damaged, it may be more difficult to understand spoken or written language.

Either or both of these parts of the brain may be affected by a stroke or head injury.

People with aphasia may find that they:

  • Find it difficult to think of the right words
  • Use the wrong word, or put words in the wrong order
  • Struggle to understand what people are saying
  • Slur or mumble
  • Spell words wrong, or mix up similar-looking or similar-sounding words

In extreme cases, people with aphasia may be unable to speak at all.

People with aphasia may not be aware that what they say is not what they mean to say.

Stroke took Tom’s voice away

When Tom suffered a devastating stroke, he and his wife Karen were told that he might be “locked in” forever.

“It was terrifying to think I wouldn’t be able to move, speak or communicate in any way at all. I have never been so scared, but thankfully I am not locked in completely,” writes Tom.

“I have aphasia and verbal dyspraxia, which means I can’t put my muscles in the right position to speak because my brain can no longer send the right message to my mouth. Having both those conditions together means speaking is almost impossible for me.

“Since then, life has been really difficult. It’s been hard to adjust to what our lives are like now.

“But the support Karen and I get from Chest Heart & Stroke Scotland is hard to put into words. It’s something so very special.

“Every week we join the online aphasia support group set up by Lucy from Chest Heart & Stroke Scotland. It has been a lifeline for us and is now one of the most important things in our lives.”

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Managing aphasia

Aphasia can improve over time, especially with support from speech and language therapists. Even if aphasia does not improve, you can learn other ways to communicate.

Aids like a conversation support book [LINK] or a communication app may help if you are struggling to find words. These use images or videos to prompt you to find the word you’re looking for.

You may find it easier to communicate in person if you:

  • Avoid background noise. Turn off TVs, radios, etc.
  • Face the person you are speaking to, and make sure you can see their face.
  • Consider gestures and facial expressions.
  • Ask people to speak slowly
  • Ask people if you need them to repeat or rephrase something

If you have a conversation planned, such as a doctor’s appointment or interview, it can help to write down what you may need to say.

If you struggle to speak, writing may be easier. If you struggle to write, but can speak clearly, there are apps available which will take dictation for you.

Helping someone with aphasia

If your friend or loved one has aphasia, you can make it easier when communicating with them by:

  • Reducing background noise. Turn off any TVs, radios, or music.
  • Being patient and waiting for the person to finish.
  • Not interrupting or assuming you know what the person intends to say.
  • Making sure that your face is clear and that you are looking at the person you’re talking to.
  • Speaking slowly and being prepared to repeat yourself if asked.
  • Using facial expressions and gestures to help give context.

Always remember that difficulty communicating does not mean difficulty thinking.

Robert embraces a new way to communicate

Robert’s stroke left him with aphasia and verbal dyspraxia, making communication difficult. But he hasn’t let this stop him.

“I would tell others who are in a similar situation to me to take one day at a time. Be creative and try to have fun with communication. You will discover strengths you didn’t know you had,” says Robert.

“One thing I do want other people to know about me and my condition is that my speech and language impairment does not mean I have other intellectual impairments – help me spread the word! Just give me the chance and allow me to come back to a point later if I’m having difficulty.

“I use drawing, writing, sign and expression and I’m constantly looking for new ways to get my point across. Things like new technology, augmentative and alternative communication apps, FaceTime, WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter are all useful aids to me.”

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What is dysarthria?

Dysarthria is a physical condition where the muscles of the mouth, throat, or face are not working properly. This is often the result of a stroke, but can also be a result of other problems like: nervous dysfunction, brain injuries, or muscle damage.

People with dysarthria may slur, mumble, or otherwise struggle to speak clearly. This is not a problem with language (as aphasia is), but the physical act of speaking.

This page was last updated on May 6, 2022 and is under regular review. If you feel anything is missing or incorrect, please contact health.information@chss.org.uk to provide feedback.

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