Finding the Words

Patients with aphasia face challenges, but they can regain their communication skills with speech therapy.

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Successfully communicating with the world around us is a skill most take for granted. But for those who have aphasia after suffering a stroke, head trauma or other brain injury, everyday dialogue can be difficult.

“Aphasia is typically an acquired, not developmental, communication disorder that happens when there is damage to key regions of the brain responsible for the ability to use words to express ideas and converse,” says Karen Copeland, a speech-language pathologist and education coordinator at St. John Medical Center.

Try having a conversation using words with no more than four letters in them,” she says. “You’ll get the idea pretty quickly.

An adjunct instructor at Oklahoma State University-Tulsa, Copeland specializes in caring for individuals who have a communication or swallowing disorder as a result of stroke or other brain-related condition.

“Up to 40 percent of people who have a stroke will have aphasia, and it is estimated that 2 million Americans have some form of the disorder,” she says. “In most cases, people retain their ability to remember information, understand humor and manage tasks that don’t require speaking, reading or writing.”

While it may be difficult for most people to understand what communication is like for a patient with aphasia, Copeland says a simple exercise can provide perspective.

“Try having a conversation using words with no more than four letters in them,” she says. “You’ll get the idea pretty quickly.”

According to the National Aphasia Association, the disorder is more common than Parkinson’s disease, cerebral palsy or muscular dystrophy, but most people are unfamiliar with it. There are various types of aphasia, and cases can range from mild to severe. Speech therapy can help patients regain some independence.

“I think the ultimate goal of therapy is to give people the tools they need to regain as much of their communication ability as possible and to live successfully in spite of difficulties which may persist,” says Copeland, who enjoys sharing her patients’ victories.

“Recently, a lady with aphasia told me that she drove by herself to Sam’s [Club]. When she arrived, she discovered that her husband had taken the Sam’s card from her wallet, so she called him to give him a piece of her mind about this,” Copeland says. “After that, she signed up for a replacement card, finished her errand and educated the Sam’s Club employees about aphasia. Game, set and match go to her.”

Copeland says advances in functional neuroimaging – procedures showing the brain working during activity – have led to great gains in understanding how the brain processes information.

“This knowledge will lead to improved options not only for treatment, but also for prevention of communication disorders affecting people of all ages,” she says. “While additional evidence from research is needed, use of medications and possibly the application of electrical or magnetic stimulation are likely to support traditional speech therapy, resulting in improved outcomes.”

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