June is Aphasia Awareness Month, and if you’ve been following the news lately, you might’ve heard about actor Bruce Willis’s recent diagnosis with this particular disorder. But what exactly is aphasia? The truth is, it’s not a commonly known disorder and most people are unfamiliar with its symptoms. Matthew Fiesta, M.D., a neuroradiologist at Radiology Associates of North Texas in Fort Worth, took the time to explain what aphasia is and how it impacts those who have been diagnosed with it.
What Is Aphasia?
“Aphasia is the inability to produce and/or understand language,” Fiesta states. “Someone experiencing aphasia may not be able to speak or understand spoken language.”
And spoken language may not be the only thing affected. Fiesta says that some individuals with aphasia have trouble reading and writing as well.
So what causes language to be disturbed?
According to Fiesta, it typically happens when the tissue around the language center in the brain is affected or damaged.
For example, Broca aphasia occurs when there is damage to the front part of the language center. Wernicke aphasia results from damage to the side part of the language center. And then there’s global aphasia, which occurs when a large portion of the language center is damaged.
There are many ways that tissue damage can occur around the language centers in the brain, thus resulting in aphasia.
The most common, Fiesta notes, is something called an ischemic stroke.
“[This is when] a blood clot travels to the brain and blocks the flow of oxygenated blood to a language center resulting in brain cell death,” he explains.
Another type of stroke that can cause aphasia is a hemorrhagic stroke.
“[In this type of stroke] blood vessels burst and oxygenated blood spreads around the brain tissue instead of actually supplying it with oxygen.”
Although many people may not be aware of aphasia and its symptoms, Fiesta says it’s fairly common because strokes are common.
He also mentions a few other potential causes of aphasia, such as:
- Brain trauma
- Brain tumors
- Brain infections
- Brain shrinking due to other conditions such as frontotemporal dementia or Alzheimer’s
It’s important to note that there are several conditions that could accidentally be mistaken for aphasia.
Delirium or psychiatric conditions such as schizophrenia often present with symptoms similar to this language disorder.
“Depressed patients may also appear to have problems comprehending [language] or naming objects, which may be confused with aphasia,” says Fiesta.
A provider will be able to rule out any other possible conditions before giving a diagnosis.
Fiesta claims that symptoms will vary depending on what caused the aphasia, as well as which portions of the language centers were affected.
“Some patients may not be able to speak at all but are still able to understand you. Some patients may only be able to answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ or shake their heads. Some patients may be able to speak, but they cannot speak fluently. Some patients may speak fluently, but the speech doesn’t make sense.”
Sometimes individuals with aphasia have a hard time repeating words, or if they can repeat them, they may not understand their meaning.
Generally, people who have suffered a severe stroke have trouble speaking, writing, or understanding any type of language at all.
Receiving A Diagnosis
In the event of a stroke, a CT scan is needed to assess the brain for damage.
MRIs are also used to look for brain tumors, brain infections, or evidence of a stroke. Additionally, MRIs can show whether an individual might have structural changes in the brain due to frontotemporal dementia or Alzheimer’s.
Lastly, there are various language tests that a speech-language pathologist (SLP) can give to help diagnose aphasia.
SLPs will test reading and writing abilities, reading comprehension, how well directions are understood, as well as the ability to name various objects.
“Some patients may recover from aphasia without treatment,” Fiesta affirms. “Speech and language therapy is also often used to help patients recover some function over time.”
SLPs have many tools for language recovery. They may teach nonverbal communication skills, such as using a computer or pointing to letters/words. And if the individual with aphasia has any remaining language function left, an SLP will teach them how to communicate with it effectively.
How To Help a Family Member Living with Aphasia
An aphasia diagnosis is undoubtedly challenging for both the patient and their family members. The good news is there are ways for family members to help make life a little easier for their loved one with aphasia.
“It’s important to minimize stress when trying to communicate,” expresses Fiesta. “Reduce distractions like having the TV or music on in the background.”
A person with aphasia will often make mistakes as they try to communicate clearly. Overly correcting these mistakes can cause stress as well, so it’s best to avoid doing so.
Reducing stress ensures the senses are calm so language can be acquired more easily.
“Let the person with aphasia take their time in trying to explain something,” he continues. “Don’t rush them. Use ‘yes’ and ‘no’ questions. Speak slowly and use shorter, less complex sentences.”