Head trauma is one of the most serious injuries a person can sustain in an accident, and it can be devastating, causing long-term or even permanent damage.
One such potential impact is dysarthria, a speech disorder caused by nerve damage that drastically affects a person’s communication abilities. But what is dysarthria, how does it cause slurred speech, and what can you do if you have dysarthria after a traumatic brain injury?
What Is Dysarthria?
The dictionary definition of dysarthria is “difficult or unclear articulation of speech that is otherwise linguistically normal”. In layman’s terms, this means that those affected do not have trouble understanding or determining what they want to communicate — on the contrary, they often know what they want to say — but they do struggle to express themselves.
While children can be born with dysarthria, in adults, it’s typically caused by brain damage or changes in the brain, often as a result of a stroke or blunt force trauma to the head. It can be fairly common — experts estimate that between 10 and 65% of people with traumatic brain injury have the condition.
What Are the Causes of Slurred Speech?
Dysarthria occurs when a person sustains a traumatic brain injury or serious facial trauma and experiences nerve damage. This damage affects the muscles we use for speech — such as the lips, jaw, and tongue — and leaves them weak or paralyzed. As a result, many people with the condition will slur their speech and have a strained, hoarse voice. Some people will also experience dysphagia, or difficulty swallowing, which can cause persistent drooling and gurgling when communicating. Unsurprisingly, dysarthria can be incredibly debilitating, frustrating, and perhaps embarrassing, as those affected might not be easily understood by others.
Dysarthria vs. Aphasia
Dysarthria is often compared to aphasia, a separate communication disorder that also impacts speech. However, the key difference between the two is that aphasia impacts language comprehension. Individuals with aphasia often struggle to understand language and may also have difficulty reading and writing or remembering the meaning of words. Those with dysarthria have no problem with comprehension or memory — it’s the output of those processes (communicating with speech) that’s affected.
What Are the Signs of Dysarthria?
There are several types of dysarthria, with each type relating to the area where the brain has been damaged. These include flaccid dysarthria, which is associated with lower motor neuron impairment, and ataxic dysarthria, which relates to the cerebellum and can also cause poor coordination and balance. Some people may have a mix of several types, known as mixed dysarthria.
While each type can present unique symptoms, there are several common signs relating to speech:
- Mumbled or slurred speech
- A hoarse or strained voice
- Changes in the volume of speech
- A nasal quality to the voice
- Difficulty breathing while talking, resulting in a breathy, exasperated tone
- Monotone speech
- Difficulty speaking in a regular rhythm, with the voice becoming very fast or slow.
However, those are just the physical symptoms, and sudden slurred speech can also have a huge emotional and psychological impact.
Because dysarthria affects a person’s speech — often their go-to method of communicating with others — it can severely derail their self-esteem. To someone with the condition, it can feel humiliating knowing others struggle to understand them, so they may go out of their way to avoid social interaction. This can significantly limit their quality of life, robbing them of the confidence to engage in new friendships and relationships or put themselves forward for a job role.
Getting Diagnosed with Dysarthria
If you’re in an accident and suffer a traumatic brain injury or facial trauma, you should immediately see a doctor. After a physical exam and scans, you may see a speech-language pathologist (SLP), who will assess the severity of the condition.
During the assessment, you may be asked to:
- Stick your tongue out
- Bite your lower lip
- Make various sounds
- Count or repeat phrases
- Talk about a familiar topic
- Read aloud.
Doing these tasks will allow the SLP to examine the movement of your muscles and rule out aphasia, which affects language comprehension.
Treatment for Slurred Speech after Head Injury
While dysarthria caused by a head injury is non-progressive, which means it won’t worsen over time, treatment may help improve slurred speech.
Treatment can involve speech therapy with a speech-language pathologist, with the main goal of maximizing communication with others.
The exact methods used will depend on an individual’s unique needs, including the type and severity of their dysarthria and their specific speech problems. This results in a personalized rehabilitation plan, which may include:
- Strategies to improve speech, such as slowing down while talking
- Exercises to improve the volume of speech
- Exercises to strengthen the control of the muscles used in speech
- Repeating specific tasks to enhance neuroplasticity
- Alternative strategies to improve communication, such as using shorter sentences, avoiding complicated words, and gesturing
- The use of communication aids, such as an alphabet keyboard.
Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that speech therapy will improve dysarthria. When treatment is successful, it can take time to learn and adjust to new ways of communicating.
Communicating with Others When You Have Dysarthria
Adapting to life after head trauma can be difficult, especially when it impacts something so vital as your way of communicating. But there are techniques you can use to improve your ability to communicate, giving you back some independence and confidence and allowing you to continue to build relationships without fear of being misunderstood.
You may work on these with the support of a speech-language pathologist, and continued practice will make them easier to do over time.
Use Short Words and Phrases
When you have sudden slurred speech after a head injury, it can feel like you have to learn to speak all over again. Start by using smaller, easier-to-say words and phrases so that your conversation partner can easily follow you. You can also do this when changing the conversation to another topic. Instead of jumping straight in, it can be helpful to use a short identifier word, such as “food” for discussing dinner or “dog” for talking about your friend’s pet.
Pause Regularly When Speaking
Pausing doesn’t just let you check that your listener can understand you; it also gives you a little break. Because the facial muscles are weaker, talking will tire you out easily. By pausing often, you’ll be able to enjoy the conversation for longer.
We all use hand gestures and facial expressions — and, often, more than we realize — so don’t be afraid to rely on these to get your point across. This might be as simple as pointing at an object or as elaborate as acting out a scene or mimicking an action related to what you’re discussing.
Have an Alternative on Standby
There’s no shame in having an alternative method of communication on standby for when you’re struggling to communicate, your listener has trouble understanding, or you need to give your voice a break. Consider carrying a pen and notebook with you so you can write or draw what you want to say, or use a notes app on your smartphone to type out messages.
Communicating with Someone with Slurred Speech
If you’re communicating with someone with dysarthria, it’s important to remember that they can understand you and are trying their best to speak clearly. Having a little bit of patience and making small changes to how you talk can make a huge difference.
When you’re in a noisy environment, communication can be difficult at the best of times. Finding a quiet place — ideally face to face instead of over the phone — where you can speak to your friend, loved one, or employee without distractions means you can focus all of your attention on the conversation.
Don’t worry about asking questions if you’re not sure if you understand slurred speech correctly. It’s not helpful to pretend you do, and the person you’re speaking to will appreciate your honesty.
It can be helpful to ask yes or no questions and repeat what you think you heard and ask them to clarify if you’re correct.
Pay Attention to Visual Cues
One of the methods an individual with dysarthria may use to communicate is gesturing. This might include pointing, signing, using different body movements, or writing things down to convey their thoughts. Keep an eye out for these methods and give them your full attention while speaking.
Resist the Urge to Finish Sentences
When you’re speaking to someone with slurred speech or who seems to find it challenging to regulate their breath, you might think that you’re being helpful by finishing their sentences. However, this can make them feel more isolated. It’s important to remember that they are doing their best to communicate to you as clearly as possible. It can be frustrating for someone with dysarthria to be cut off and stopped from expressing what they want to say, so above all, be patient and give them space to communicate.
Can You Get Compensation if Your Speech Is Slurred Due to a Head Injury?
If you or someone you love has sustained a traumatic brain injury or any other injury that has led to dysarthria or a language disability, you may be entitled to make a compensation claim. Being diagnosed with dysarthria after a head injury can be devastating and significantly alter the rest of your life. On top of medical bills for tests, scans, and ongoing speech therapy — which can be incredibly costly — you may also lose confidence and be unable to work.
At Patino Law Firm, our experienced head injury lawyers fight hard to protect your rights and interests after a personal injury accident. We believe in providing our clients with a strong voice to make their cases heard and fight for justice against those who have caused them harm.
We can help you recover the costs associated with treatment and long-term disability management, as well as seek compensation for the unquantifiable physical pain, emotional suffering, and overall diminished quality of life that a brain injury causes.
With Patino Law Firm, you will never pay a fee until we win. You can speak to a personal injury attorney to discuss your case in confidence by filling in our contact form or calling 855-LAW-NINJA.