Treatment for Aphasia After a Stroke

Aphasia refers to a difficulty understanding language or speaking. It a common complication of stroke. In general terms, aphasia is a disturbance in the production, processing, or understanding of language due to brain damage, most commonly from a stroke.

For stroke survivors living with aphasia, treatment is an important aspect of life after a stroke. There are several treatment approaches for the different types of aphasia.

Female doctor helping male patient with hearing aid in doctors office
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General Principles

Several principles of therapy have been shown in small studies to improve the outcome of therapy.

  • Regardless of the type of therapy used, the outcome is better if it is given in long sessions over a few weeks, rather than shorter sessions over many weeks.
  • The effectiveness of aphasia therapy increases when therapists use multiple forms of sensory stimuli. For instance, auditory stimuli in the form of music and visual stimuli in the form of pictures and drawings are routinely used during aphasia therapy sessions.
  • Gradual increases in the difficulty of language exercises practiced during a given therapy session improve the outcome.

Listed below are some well-known forms of aphasia treatments.

Clinical Guidelines for Post-stroke Aphasia

The American Heart Association and American Stroke Association strongly recommend speech and language therapy for individuals with aphasia. Although different approaches may work based on the individual and their case, the groups point to communication partner training, including family members and caregivers, as an important component of any speech and language therapy program for post-stroke patients.

Cognitive Linguistic Therapy

This form of therapy emphasizes the emotional components of language. For example, some exercises require patients to interpret the characteristics of different emotional tones of voice. Others require them to describe the meaning of highly descriptive words or terms such as the word "happy." These exercises help patients practice comprehension skills while focusing on understanding the emotional components of language.

Programmed Simulation

This type of therapy uses multiple sensory modalities, including pictures and music, introduced in a gradual progression from easy to difficult.

Stimulation-Facilitation Therapy

This form of aphasia therapy focuses mostly on a grammatical structure as well as the meaning of words and sentences. One of the main assumptions of this type of therapy is that improvements in language skills are best accomplished with repetition.

Group Therapy

This type of therapy provides a social context for patients to practice the communication skills they have learned during individual therapy sessions while getting important feedback from therapists and other people with aphasia. Family treatment strategies have a similar effect, while also facilitating the communications of aphasics with their loved ones.

PACE (Promoting Aphasic's Communicative Effectiveness)

This is one of the best-known forms of pragmatic therapy, a form of aphasia therapy that promotes improvements in communication by using conversation as a tool for learning. PACE therapy sessions typically involve an enacted conversation between the therapist and the patient. In order to stimulate spontaneous communication, this type of therapy uses drawings, pictures, and other visually-stimulating items that are used by the patient to generate ideas to be communicated during the conversation. The therapist and the patient take turns to convey their ideas.

The difficulty of the materials used to generate conversation is increased in a gradual fashion. Patients are encouraged to use any means of communication during the session, which allows the therapist to discover communication skills that should be reinforced in the patient. The therapist communicates with the patient by imitating the means of communication with which the patient feels most comfortable.

Pharmacotherapy

This is a new approach to aphasia therapy and the efficacy has yet to be proven. The list of medications tried so far include piracetam, bifenalade, piribedil, bromocriptine, idebenone, and dextran 40, donezepil, amphetamines and several antidepressants.

Although the evidence is not very strong, it appears that at least donezepil, piribedil, and amphetamines might have some degree of efficacy in aphasia treatment. The latter appears to be especially helpful at enhancing the benefits of traditional, non-medication-based therapy, as some studies have shown a better outcome of therapy when patients are given amphetamines before therapy sessions.

Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS)

Although this modality of treatment is seldom used, its efficacy is under intense investigation. TMS consists of aiming a magnet directly at a part of the brain which is thought to inhibit language recovery after stroke. By suppressing the function of that part of the brain, recovery is enhanced.

The type of magnetic therapy that has been tried in aphasia rehabilitation is the "slow and repeated" version of TMS. A few small studies have had encouraging results, but a large, well-controlled study is still needed to ensure the efficacy of this form of treatment.

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