By Nyaka Mwanza
Multiple sclerosis (MS) can result in a variety of communication difficulties. While broaching uncomfortable topics, such as multiple sclerosis life expectancy, can pose its own challenges, MS can also physically disrupt some people’s ability to communicate as effectively as they once did.
That’s because MS is an immune-mediated condition that damages and destroys neurons in the central nervous system (CNS). Known as demyelination, this destruction of nerve cells causes lesions in the spinal cord, optic nerves, and brain. MS lesions in certain areas of the CNS can sometimes result in difficulties with speech and comprehension. However, there are ways of overcoming these difficulties so that a person may communicate better.
How MS Disrupts Information Exchange
Communication issues in people with MS usually arise due to damage in areas of the CNS that are responsible for cognitive and motor function.
Cognition refers to our ability to think, read, learn, remember, reason, and concentrate. Cognitive processes also comprise language, planning ahead, imagination, and perception.
Approximately 70 percent of people with MS experience impairments in these cognitive functions. Cognitive difficulties such as slower processing speeds and worsened memory can impede a person’s ability to process spoken or written language. Cognitive impairment in a person with MS may also look like difficulty finding the right words for things when speaking, difficulties spelling words correctly, or switching words incorrectly when speaking.
Language and Speech Difficulties
Speech and language involve several cognitive functions, but speech also involves intact motor function, especially the coordination of the muscles in the lips, tongue, vocal cords, and diaphragm. However, MS can disrupt the brain’s ability to communicate properly with various muscles in the body, sometimes interfering with the ability to produce appropriate speech.
Dysphonia is a voice disorder due to weakened diaphragm functioning. The diaphragm helps with breathing and volume control. Dysphonia can result in very quiet or loud speech. A person with dysphonia may also find that they run out of air while talking. Dysphonia can also cause a raspy voice.
Dysarthria is a motor speech disorder commonly caused by the weakening of muscles used for speech, swallowing, and breathing. Between 40 and 50 percent of people with MS experience passing or permanent dysarthrias, which may result in slurring, monotone, and disruptions to speech patterns with abnormally long pauses between syllables or words. Issues like these can make holding a conversation difficult or uncomfortable.
Bridging the Communication Gap
A speech or language pathologist is a specialized healthcare provider who can evaluate and help treat voice and speech disorders. Depending on the severity of a person’s MS, some speech therapy will focus on compensating for dysfunctions in cognition and speech and enabling people with MS to find alternative means of communication. Other therapy for more mild speech difficulties may focus on developing strategies to control breathing, strengthen the vocal cords, or even simplify speech to make it easier to get through. People with MS may find it’s easier to hold a conversation when they’re not competing with other noises or distractions. Tools that aid with cognitive dysfunction, such as Talking Mats, can help loved ones concentrate on common topics to help make discussion easier. Here is an example of how Talking Mats helped some with multiple sclerosis to set their goals https://www.talkingmats.com/getting-root-problem/
- MS Prognosis: Multiple Sclerosis Life Expectancy
- Speech and Swallowing
- Multiple Sclerosis and Communication Difficulties – East Sussex Healthcare NHS Trust
About the Author
Nyaka Mwanza is a freelance writer for MyHealthTeams. She completed a B.A. in Communications: Visual Media from American University and undertook post-baccalaureate studies in Health/Behavioural Communications and Marketing at Johns Hopkins University. Nyaka is a Zambian-born, E.U. citizen who was raised in sub-Saharan Africa and Jacksonville, N.C. However, she has called Washington, D.C., home for most of her life. For much of her career, Nyaka has worked with large global health non-profits focused on improving health outcomes for women and children. Nyaka believes words hold immense power, and her job is to meet the reader where they are, when they’re there.