Understanding aphasia

August 5, 2023 Swedish Neuroscience Team


In this article:

  • Aphasia is a communication disorder caused by an injury to the brain. It impairs your ability to process and understand language.

  • Stroke is the most common cause of aphasia but it may also stem from a traumatic head injury, infection or tumor.

  • Swedish Neuroscience Institute offers personalized treatment plans that address the underlying cause of your aphasia with innovative, individualized care options.

Imagine your life if the words people said to you suddenly quit making sense. Picture how it would be if you lost the ability to read or write. Or if words and phrases became gibberish when spoken aloud.

Each of those scenarios can be a daily occurrence for people with aphasia.

“Aphasia is a language disorder caused by damage to the area of your brain that controls your ability to communicate,” explains Soo Young Kwon, M.D., a board-certified neurologist at Swedish Neuroscience Institute. “Aphasia is a symptom, not a diagnosis. Anything that disrupts your ability to understand or express yourself is aphasia.”

Roughly two million Americans currently experience aphasia and nearly 180,000 more acquire the symptom every year, according to the National Aphasia Association. And yet, few people are aware of the condition and even fewer understand the impact it can have on the health of those it affects.

The many faces of aphasia

Aphasia is caused by damage to the language center of your brain. Stroke is the most common culprit, but aphasia can also develop due to a brain tumor, traumatic head injury or infection. Anyone can be at risk, but aphasia tends to be most common among older people.

Language and communication encompass more than speaking or the words you use, according to Dr. Kwon.

Damage to the language center can affect your ability to:

  • Speak
  • Read
  • Write
  • Understand others
  • Use numbers
  • Use and understand gestures

There are several main types of aphasia, including:

  • Broca’s aphasia — affects your ability to form complete sentences. Speech is reduced and limited to short utterances with few words.
  • Wernicke’s aphasia — reduces your ability to grasp the meaning of words you once understood but does not change your ability to produce speech. Reading and writing may be severely impaired.
  • Anomic aphasia — causes difficulty identifying the correct words, especially nouns or verbs. Speech and writing may be reduced considerably.
  • Global aphasia — damages all language skills, eliminating the ability to recognize and understand spoken and written communication.

Aphasia causes two main categories of communication issues: receptive and expressive, according to Dr. Kwon.

“Some aphasia causes comprehension problems, including problems understanding spoken language or problems reading and understanding what’s written. That’s called receptive aphasia. Then there is expressive aphasia, where you may be able to process incoming information but you can't communicate your inner thoughts outward,” she explains.

Treatment — it depends

How is aphasia treated? “It depends,” says Dr. Kwon. “It depends on what’s causing the aphasia. If it’s from a stroke, it depends on how big the stroke is and the area of the brain it affects. If it’s from a brain tumor, it depends on the size and location of the tumor. ‘It depends’ is very, very important.”

Swedish takes a team approach to treatment for aphasia, according to Dr. Kwon. “We have a great neurology department with lots of subspecialties. We have speech pathologists. We have stroke specialists. We have multiple sclerosis specialists. We have dementia specialists and cancer specialists,” she says. “We focus on personalized treatment strategies that strengthen the functions you have left or help regain what you've lost.”


Learn more and find a provider

Swedish Neuroscience Institute offers comprehensive, progressive diagnosis and treatment for a wide range of spine, brain and central nervous system conditions. Telehealth options are available.

Swedish Virtual Care connects you face-to-face with a nurse practitioner who can review your symptoms, provide instruction, and follow up as needed. If you need to find a provider, you can use our provider directory.

Join our Patient and Family Advisory Council.

Related resources

What women should know about strokes

Stroke: Symptoms, risk and other tips from a Swedish expert

Providence Swedish is nationally recognized for providing high-quality stroke care

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional’s instructions.

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About the Author

From deep brain stimulation to focused ultrasound to pediatric neurology, The Swedish Neuroscience Team is recognized as national experts to help people address a wide array of neurological conditions. Our goal is to provide useful and helpful advice and tips on non-surgical and surgical options to treat any disease of the mind.

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