Aphasia: words don’t come easy
Language is one of the vital means of communication and plays a central role in almost every aspect of life. A sudden loss of language bears great consequences in the patient’s family, social or professional life.
Before she became ill, Helga Weber* had a fulfilled life. She was very happy with her work as medical doctor, enjoyed training in athletics in her spare time and loved to travel around the globe. Untill 1995, when the unthinkable happened. One morning Helga Weber looses her balance and falls on the floor several times. The right side of her body is numb. When she attempts to call the paramedics, she looses her voice. She can utter only one single sound. Later in the hospital, Helga Weber learns the diagnosis: she suffers aphasia as a result of a stroke.
Partial Brain damage
Helga is only one of many. In the USA, approximately 500,000 individuals suffer from strokes each year; twenty percent of these individuals develop some type of aphasia. Aphasia is a condition characterised by either partial or total loss of the ability to communicate verbally or using written words. A person with aphasia can have difficulty speaking, reading, writing, recognising the names of objects, or understanding what other people say.
Aphasia is caused by a brain injury, as it may occur during a traumatic accident or when the brain is deprived of oxygen during a stroke. It may also be caused by a brain tumour, diseases like Alzheimer's, or infections like encephalitis.
Symptoms depend on severity
The degree to which an individual can regain language abilities is highly dependent on how much brain damage occurred and on the location and cause of the original brain injury. Aphasia can be partially cured if the neighbouring cells take up the linguistic functions from the damaged parts of the brain.
In a mild form of aphasia, patients have difficulties to understanding specific words. In a form of medium severity, patients can only communicate with one or two word sentences. And in the most severe form, all the linguistical functions are disabled. Many patients cannot engage in a lively discussion or even read a newspaper what often leads to frustration and social isolation.
Learn to live with the handicap
In general, about 60% of all aphasia patients suffer from a chronic disease and are linguistically disabled for the rests of their lives. To regain language function, therapy must begin as soon as possible after the injury.
Although currently, there are no medical or surgical procedures available to treat this condition, aphasia resulting from stroke or head injury may improve through speech therapies. For most affected people, however, the primary emphasis lies on making the most of their retained language abilities and learning to use other means of communication for compensating the lost language abilities.
A speech-language pathologist (SLP) may be very helpful in helping someone with aphasia improve communication skills and cope with the disorder. The National Aphasia Association (NAA) informs about the possibilities to locate a suitable speech language pathologist.
Changes in social environment
For many aphasia patients, reintegrating in their former social environment is very difficult. Misunderstandings, failed or aborted attempts of communication create frustrations that add to the already existing tensions within the personal social structure. In this situation, it is important to seek professional advice. Joining a support group such as one of the aphasia social networks which allow patients to share their problems with other aphasia affected people, can be a helpful strategy for social reintegration.
Develop positive energies
Back to Helga. The long-time speech therapy has worked well for her. After one year of intensive therapy, she was able to utter her first words. Helga fought hard and often faced despair. Yet, with the therapeutic support, she made a step forward and used her deeply positive energies for the healing process.
Today, Helga makes new friends, feels accepted and approaches people spontaneously despite of her permanent word-finding difficulties. Helga has taken her life into her own hands and has learned to accept a life with a handicap.
*Name is known to the editorial office
Text & translation: Michel Benedetti