Any speech disorder or condition that makes it difficult or impossible for a person to talk is considered a speech impediment. The causes of these issues can be congenital or acquired and can manifest in several different ways. The most common impediments are aphasia, apraxia, dysarthria, and stuttering; once any applicable underlying issue is addressed, the speech impediment is typically treated with therapy.
A speech impediment can be caused by a neurological disorder, malformation of the vocal cords, or issues with the face or facial muscles. These health challenges may be present at birth, primarily as a birth defect, or can be caused by metabolic issues, tumors, infections, or physical injuries. In some cases, malformation or damage to the nerves that send messages between the brain and the muscles in the face can cause a speech impediment.
Aphasia, a language impediment, almost always results in a speech disorder. This medical issue makes it difficult or impossible for a person to understand language in any form, both spoken or written. This is often caused by a neurological disorder; while it can be congenital, it is a common side effect of a stroke. Due to the inability to understand language, it is nearly impossible for the person to communicate effectively, thus resulting in a speech impediment.
Apraxia, also common among stroke victims, is caused by a neurological disorder that disrupts the signals between the brain and the muscles used for speech, thereby resulting in someone being unable to say what he or she means. This often manifests as jumbled, nonsensical words, despite the patient knowing what he or she is attempting to communicate. Often caused by a lack of blood flow to a certain portion of the brain, apraxia can resolve itself once blood flow is restored, although permanent damage is possible.
Dysarthria results when a person has difficulty pronouncing certain words or sounds. Common among young children, those with dysarthria often have problems with sounds associated with “s,” “r,” and “l”, although it is not limited to these sounds. Another common childhood speech impediment is stuttering, defined as repeating a sound or phrase unwillingly. While dysarthria and stuttering can often be controlled with speech therapy, recovery from these speech impediments depends largely on their severity and the underlying cause; in some cases, these speech disorders can last well into adulthood.
Speech therapy is the most common treatment for a speech disorder. The therapy tools depend on the type of speech impediment a person is experiencing. In many instances, it is best to address the underlying cause of the impediment, if it is treatable, before therapy. Those suffering from severe disorders may need to undergo therapy several times a week. In cases where the impediment cannot be improved enough to allow a person to communicate with others, an alternative communication option may be used, the most common being computers or sign language.