Coping With Speech Problems in Multiple Sclerosis

Scanning Speech, Mumbling, and Other Communication Challenges

frustrated woman talking on phone
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Among the most frustrating complications of multiple sclerosis (MS) are disorders that interfere with the ability to speak clearly. One of these is dysarthria, a motor disorder that makes it hard to control the muscles used for speaking—muscles in the lips, tongue, jaw, soft palate, vocal cords, and even the diaphragm. Symptoms of dysarthria include "scanning speech," in which words come out very slowly or in strange rhythms with the syllables between them separated by long pauses, slurred speech, mumbling, very slow speech, and limited movement of the tongue, lip, and jaw.

Speech disorders are caused when MS interferes with communication between the brain and spinal cord which is quite common. According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society (NMSS), between 41 percent and 51 percent of folks living with MS are affected by dysarthria. (Note that dysarthria often goes hand-in-hand with a separate disorder called dysphonia that affects voice quality, pitch, and volume.)

Opening the Lines of Communication

Scanning speech and other symptoms of dysarthria don't create physical pain, but they can lead to anxiety, frustration, and a lack of self-confidence. If your speech has been affected by MS, here are some ways to help make yourself more easily understood.

Speak Up When You're Struggling

If you've ever heard a recording of yourself speaking, you know how different your voice can sound on tape from what you hear in your head. It's the same thing when you talk to other people: They may find your speech to be much clearer than you think it is, so don't hesitate to give your listener a heads-up when you're feeling speech-challenged.

Give Yourself a Break

In the heat of a moment of frustration, it can help to take a few minutes to regroup. Breathe in deeply and repeat a comforting phrase to yourself such as "It's all good." Do this a few times until you feel ready to go back to your conversation. When you do, keep your sentences short and speak slowly.

Get Help From a Professional

Working with a speech-language pathologist (SLP) can be an effective way to deal with communication problems caused by MS. This specialist will first evaluate your speech to figure out exactly what to focus on in your treatment. The SLP will then meet with you one-on-one in therapy sessions and also give you exercises to do on your own. An SLP may help you work on strengthening your speech muscles and increasing your tongue and lip movements, learn to speak more slowly, and teach you to use your breath more effectively when you talk. This may be an especially important step to take if you're worried your speech problem is impacting your work or your social life.

Talk With Your Hands

Very rarely dysarthria caused by MS can leave a person unable to be understood—or even speak—at all. In that case, there are various workarounds to try, including alphabet boards, hand gestures, and electronic or computer-based aids.

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