Slurred speech happens when the muscles used for speech are weak or difficult to control. This can occur at any age. Slurred speech causes include damage to the brain, conditions that affect the nervous system or medication side effects. Slurred speech can be caused by various conditions or injuries like stroke, brain tumors, head injuries, cerebral palsy, Huntington’s disease, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, Parkinson’s disease, myasthenia gravis and ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis).
When to see a doctor
Some symptoms that accompany slurred speech can include slowed speaking, decreased volume while talking, a rapid speech rate, uneven or monotone speech patterns or changes to your voice. You may also experience drooling, difficulty swallowing or asymmetries to the face, lips and tongue.
See a doctor if you’ve noticed changes gradually over time or if your speech becomes slurred after periods of use. If you experience sudden onset slurred speech, immediately go to an emergency department.
“Sudden onset of slurred speech is a strong indicator of a possible stroke; however, a full medical evaluation should be completed,” said Holly Worzalla, a board-certified speech-language pathologist with Marshfield Clinic Health System.
Because slurred speech is often a symptom of another condition, you will have a full neurological assessment to help diagnose the cause. This evaluation may include a physical exam by a neurologist, an MRI of the brain, CT scan of the brain or neck, EEG (electroencephalogram) or EMG (electromyogram).
Speech therapy can treat slurred speech
Depending on the cause, a licensed speech-language pathologist can offer strategies, exercises and technology to improve and supplement your speech. First, your speech-language pathologist will perform diagnostic testing to determine the severity. Then, your speech-language pathologist can work with you to develop a personalized treatment plan of exercises.
“These exercises can strengthen the muscles used for speech while implementing strategies to make your speech easier to understand,” Worzalla said. “We help train the patient to speak slower, louder and/or teach the patient to enunciate words clearer.”
These speech specialists can use their treatment plans in speech therapy to train patients to use alternate communication methods to supplement speech. This can include technology, gestures, alphabet boards, writing and voice amplifiers. In addition, there are communication devices similar to tablets or iPads that are programmed to assist people who have severely slurred speech. These communication devices, plus smartphone or tablet apps, can convert typed text to spoken words.
Supporting a loved one who has slurred speech
Communication is a huge aspect of everyone’s life. Struggling when you can’t communicate how you want to can feel very isolating at times and create a negative impact on mental health. Individuals with slurred speech may feel like others don’t want to talk with them. They may also feel their decline in speech functions is a reflection of their intelligence. This is not true.
“One of the most important roles the SLP has with any individual with a communication impairment is to provide education on the causes, stress the importance of communication and help them rediscover their confidence in communicating,” Worzalla said.
Families or loved ones can attend speech therapy sessions with the patient and learn strategies that help the patient communicate more effectively and efficiently. It’s important to remember that individuals with slurred speech may need extra patience and understanding when communicating. If you don’t understand something they’re saying, it’s okay to ask for clarification rather than pretending to understand. This can help improve communication and prevent misunderstandings.