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Aphasia: what it is and how to treat it

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Aphasia is a rare condition that the majority of people know very little about. However, the spotlight has turned to aphasia in recent weeks since the announcement that Die Hard star Bruce Willis is ending his Hollywood career after being diagnosed with the disorder.

Whilst it’s a relatively uncommon condition, we know that aphasia primarily affects the part of the brain that deals with language. This makes it particularly challenging to live with as communication becomes difficult for both the affected individual and those around them.

Here we take a deeper look into what aphasia actually is, how it affects us and what treatments are available to help make daily life a little easier following an aphasia diagnosis.

What is aphasia?

Aphasia is a neurological condition that results in difficulties with how the brain processes language. It’s typically caused by damage to the left side of the brain, usually following a stroke. However, other causes can include a significant head injury, the presence of a brain tumour, or the onset of a degenerative disease like dementia.

All parts of the brain rely on regular blood flow to function properly, so incidents that end up restricting this blood flow can cause significant cognitive issues. Aphasia occurs when it is the areas of the brain responsible for processing speech and language that get cut off.

Language is a two-way street as we need to be able to both express ourselves and receive others. If either or both of these linguistic aspects become impaired, it can have a profound impact on how we go about our daily lives.

Types of aphasia

There are two particular ways of classifying aphasia depending on how a person struggles with language processing. These types are referred to as “receptive” and “expressive” aphasia, which best describe whether the patient has problems understanding others or communicating by themselves. Both types of aphasia relate to the two ways we can process language – through sound and the written word.

Somebody with expressive aphasia make find it difficult to find the right words to communicate what they means, either through speech, writing or typing. They may also make errors in spelling, grammar and word order, or use similar related words, like describing something yellow as “white” for example.

Receptive aphasia is more to do with how a person understands and interprets things they see and hear. They may have difficulty understanding something you’ve said or something that’s written down for them. Misinterpreting pictures or gestures can also be a strong sign of receptive aphasia; common symbols like a red warning triangle may become meaningless to them.

In some cases, it’s also possible that somebody may experience a mixture of both expressive and receptive aphasia. This adds an extra layer of difficulty to their ability to communicate, making it all the more important for you to be able to recognise and identify the signs of aphasia in a loved one.

Can aphasia be treated?

Due to the nature of the condition, aphasia is effectively a mild form of brain damage. In some cases, it can be temporary with patients naturally recovering their language skills over time. However, for the most part, people with aphasia will need rehabilitation through speech and language therapy.

Speech and language therapists work with people recovering from strokes or in need of support to regain their full potential in communicating effectively with others. The NHS advises that most people with aphasia may need “many hours of speech and language therapy” to help restore as much of these abilities as possible.

Aphasia can affect people differently with varying levels of severity. This means that, in the first instance, a speech and language therapist will need to carry out an assessment of the patient’s abilities and what they are struggling with. Following this, the therapist will be able to formulate a plan using multiple techniques to help the patient to recover.

Common questions:

Does aphasia affect memory?

By and large, a person’s memory isn’t affected by aphasia. However, it can appear that way if the person is struggling to find the right words to describe or communicate something. It’s likely they won’t have forgotten the words they need, but instead the language part of the brain is struggling to retrieve the right words at that time.

Is aphasia reversible?

Unfortunately, aphasia does not go away completely and, despite their therapy progress, your loved one may experience episodes of communication difficulties from time to time. Therapy can, however, help people to recover much of their speech and language abilities. Furthermore, research is ongoing into other treatment methods that may be effective in the future.