Learning to Communicate After a Stroke

Everyone experiences memory lapses every once in a while but for stroke victims this is a part of their everyday life. This condition is called aphasia caused due to brain damage as a result of the stroke and not a mere memory loss.

According to Ellayne Ganzfried, executive director of the National Aphasia Association in New York, even though people suffering from aphasia know what they want to say and retain their knowledge and intellect but are unable to communicate it as they used to earlier.  The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) estimates that approximately 1 million people, or 1 in 250 in the United States today, suffer from aphasia.

The extent of damage of the brain and part of the brain affected due to stroke has a bearing on the communication levels of the person suffering from it. In aphasia a person has trouble coming up with words, grammar and comprehension. A person could also experience speech problems due to weakness in the muscles. A stroke can also affect memory and cognition.

The brain is most plastic – as in malleable, and receptive to repair – during the first month after a stroke, says Troche, who is also an assistant professor at UF’s College of Public Health and Health Professions. “The brain is going to heal itself, but you want to help the brain along so it doesn’t develop compensatory behaviors."

The most important thing that a stroke victim should do in the first month is to consult a qualified speech pathologist who can identify the problems associated with speech just as a physical therapist would help someone recover from a problem in muscle functioning after an accident.

The underlying physiological problem is a breakdown of communication among neurons, or brain cells, Troche explains. The disturbance in communication will get picked up naturally and for other forms of communication various exercises may be required. For instance, there may be trouble searching for a word even though it is present in the brain. In such cases therapy may be required in describing the word without using it by strengthening connections back to that word.

The duration of the treatment will depend on the damage, but Ganzfried says some research shows that intense treatment programs those lasting five to six hours a day for four to six weeks can make a big difference.

Ganzfried also states that in most cases there is spontaneous recovery that is quite evident within six months to a year. Although speech therapy is key to recovery, music therapy can bring back language skills.

Technological aids in the form of computer-assisted programs, designed to speak to the stroke patient are also instrumental to long-term recovery. Phone apps have also been developed for everything from reading to writing, grammar and sentence construction also help people continue to recover

As per Ganzfried, the most important thing in treatment of people with aphasia is that they work on their speech and language continuously. But this may prove to be a costly proposition since insurance typically covers speech therapy but not long term therapy.

Dealing with stroke and aphasia can be a very isolating and depression experience for seniors and because of this reason they should join community support groups where the stroke victims do not only engage with each other but with the community at large.

Want more information, please see our additional posts as part of our month-long series dedicated to information regarding Strokes, diagnoses, treatment, prevention and care.