According to the Center for Disease Control, 795,000 Americans suffer from strokes every year, making it the most common disability seen among adults. With 160,000 deaths in the United States linked to these attacks on the brain, strokes are one of the leading causes of death in Americans.
For those fortunate enough to survive a stroke, the effects it has on communication skills can be devastating. However, with time, effort and support, there are ways to recover from a stroke and reclaim the previous quality of life. With May being American Stroke Awareness Month, there is no better time to learn how a stroke sufferer can recover from its potentially debilitating effects.
The first step in learning the best ways to recover from a stroke is understanding what a stroke is and how it affects basic communication skills. A stroke occurs when regular blood circulation to the brain fails, caused either by a blockage of blood flow or bleeding. The most common cause of stroke is blockage of blood flow, which results in an 80% survival rate.
After surviving a stroke, a person’s communication skills show the most obvious effects. Signs of stroke damage to a person’s ability to communicate can be seen both suddenly and gradually, and may include impairment of motor skills, senses, language, thinking, memory and emotions.
These symptoms, coupled with physical ones—most notably weakness in the muscles of the face, tongue and throat—can make communicating a challenge. Other symptoms that can affect communication are loss of voice tone, fixed facial expressions and even a loss of movement in one side of the body.
The Stroke Association divides stroke symptoms and how they relate to communication into three categories: aphasia, dysarthria and dyspraxia. Aphasia, which is characterized by trouble forming words, listening, reading or speaking, results when the language centers of the brain are damaged. While aphasia does not affect intelligence, it does affect a person’s ability to communicate.
Dysarthria is characterized by a person’s difficulty physically producing the sounds needed for communication. A person with dysarthria often finds the words they need to use, but cannot properly articulate them due to muscle weakness. Dyspraxia is related to the coordination of the muscles needed for communicating, which may not work properly or be out of sync.
Recovering From a Stroke
Communication is key to overall quality of life. The road to recovery can be a difficult one, but stroke survivors can return to their daily communication routines they once took for granted with some time and help.
- Work with a speech therapist.
Those who have suffered a stroke and have difficulty communicating often first employ the help of a trained speech therapist. A speech therapist acts as a person’s coach, focusing on problem areas such as reading and writing, and practices the basic mechanics of conversation to help get a stroke sufferer back to communicating freely. This may start with the basics: helping a person swallow or use other voice-related muscles, or repeating simple words and phrases. The process may be taxing, but a speech therapist is trained to work through stress and frustration in order to return a stroke victim to their desired state of healthy communication.
- Get the family to help.
Families, loved ones and caregivers can also be important coaches throughout the recovery of a stroke survivor. For example, a person speaking with a stroke victim should look directly at the person and try to speak in a normal, clear tone of voice. It can be helpful to practice speaking in a room with minimal background noise as well as using short sentences and sticking with one topic at a time. Most importantly, a loved one or caregiver should exercise patience, letting the recovering stroke victim finish their own sentences, without getting frustrated.
- Sing it out!
The American Stroke Association recommends singing as a tool in recovery from a stroke. While this concept may sound—and feel—a little silly, singing as a means of communication has roots in basic human evolution. Recent evidence indicates that human beings learned to communicate through song before developing basic language skills and regular speech as we know it today.
As children, people are often taught language through song. Stroke recovery is about getting back to the basics; while it does not work for everyone, singing can be an effective step to recovery.
When on the road to recovering from a stroke, it is important to be proactive in preventing additional strokes that can further hamper a person’s hard work and progress. The most important thing a person can do to prevent further strokes is to maintain a healthy and active lifestyle: this begins with a nutrient-rich, balanced diet that includes lots of fruits and vegetables and reduces salt, saturated fats and processed foods. Exercise is also key: maintain a healthy weight and manage cholesterol and blood pressure to prevent stroke. Smoking can also lead to stroke, as cigarettes have been linked to fatty buildup in the arteries. A person should consult their physician about help quitting if they do smoke. Following these steps have helped cut the stroke death rate in half in the last two decades.
While certain stroke risk factors such as family history are not preventable, any person, even those who have not suffered a stroke, can benefit from these tips.
Communication is a basic human function, and something people take for granted—stroke sufferers quickly learn how important communication is in their lives. While loss of communication can be frightening, recovery is not only possible but very much within the grasp of every stroke survivor. With proper care, as well as supportive and informed loved ones, the road to recovery and the return to a normal quality of life can be made much easier.