Aphasia is a brain disorder where a person has trouble speaking or understanding other people speaking. This happens with damage or disruptions in parts of the brain that control spoken language. It often happens with conditions like stroke. Aphasia is often treatable, and speech therapy can still help people who have this condition permanently.
Aphasia is a disorder where you have problems speaking or understanding what other people say. It usually happens because of damage to part of your brain but can also happen with conditions that disrupt how your brain works. There are also multiple types of aphasia. The location of the damage in your brain determines the type of aphasia you have.
This condition is almost always a symptom of another problem, such as a stroke or traumatic brain injury. It can also happen as a temporary effect of conditions like migraines. Aphasia is often treatable, especially when the underlying condition is treatable or can heal on its own.
Aphasia is a condition that has a connection or an overlap with several other speech-related disorders and problems, such as dysarthria, dysphasia and apraxia.
Aphasia can affect anyone who has damage to the areas of the brain that control your ability to speak or understand other people speaking. It’s more common in middle-aged and older adults — especially because of conditions like stroke — but it can also happen at any age.
Aphasia is uncommon, with about 2 million people in the United States having this condition and about 180,000 more developing it each year. It does happen very commonly with certain conditions. An example of this is stroke, where nearly one-third of people with that condition also have some form of aphasia.
Because this affects your ability to communicate, people with this condition often feel it's hard for others to understand them. This can cause a range of problems. Some are just minor annoyances, like not being able to ask for a glass of water. Others could become life-threatening misunderstandings, like not being able to tell someone that you’re having symptoms of a stroke.
There are multiple types of aphasia and aphasia-like conditions. While the symptoms of aphasia have many similarities, there are still some important differences. To understand how aphasia works, it helps to understand a little bit about two specific parts of the brain that work together when you talk:
These two areas of the brain work together to help you speak. Wernicke’s area processes your understanding of words and picks which ones you use, and then it sends signals to Broca's area. Once Broca’s area knows what words to use, it sends the signals to the muscles you use when you speak.
There are eight main types of aphasia, and experts consider three main factors when determining which kind a person has. Those factors are:
Also known as “non-fluent aphasia” or “expressive aphasia,” this is one of the more common forms of this condition. People with Broca’s aphasia usually have the following:
Also known as “fluent aphasia” or “receptive aphasia,” this is also a relatively common form of aphasia. People with Wernicke’s aphasia usually have the following:
This is the most severe form of aphasia. It usually involves the following features.
Other forms of aphasia
Aphasia can happen with any condition that damages the brain. It can also happen with problems that disrupt your brain’s functions. Possible causes for this include:
Aphasia is not contagious. It can happen with some contagious conditions, but none of these will definitely cause aphasia.
Diagnosing aphasia takes a combination of a physical exam, asking questions about your history, diagnostic imaging and testing, and more. In some cases, a healthcare provider will recommend running several tests to rule out other conditions or causes that might cause effects similar to those seen with aphasia. Some examples of this include:
Several tests are possible when providers suspect aphasia. In most cases, a speech language specialist can help to determine what type of aphasia — if any — that a person has. The tests may also help with diagnosing what caused the aphasia and may even determine if the cause is treatable and what kind of treatments will work best.
Possible tests include:
Unfortunately, there’s no direct cure for aphasia. However, it’s usually treatable in some way. The first step in treating aphasia is usually treating the condition that causes it. With conditions like stroke, quickly restoring blood flow to the affected area of the brain can sometimes limit or prevent permanent damage.
In cases where aphasia happens because of a temporary problem, such as from a concussion, migraine, seizure or some kind of infection, aphasia is often temporary, too. The aphasia usually gets better or goes away entirely as you recover and your brain heals with time and treatment.
For people who have long-term or permanent brain damage, like what happens with severe strokes, speech therapy can sometimes help a person's language abilities. These therapy options can also help a person with improving their understanding of others, and how to compensate for their aphasia. Speech therapy can also involve caregivers and loved ones, so they know how best to communicate with and help you.
The medications or treatments for conditions that cause aphasia can vary widely. Because of that, your healthcare provider is the best source of information on the possible treatments that will help you. They can tailor the treatment options to your needs and circumstances. They'll also consider any underlying health conditions or preferences that might impact your care.
The possible side effects or complications that can happen depend on what caused this condition in the first place and the specific treatments used. Your healthcare provider can explain the potential side effects or complications most likely in your specific case. You can also ask them more about what you can do to limit or even prevent side effects.
Aphasia is a sign of damage or serious disruptions in your brain. Most conditions that cause aphasia are severe, and some are life-threatening medical emergencies. Because of that, you shouldn't try to self-diagnose aphasia. If you or someone you're with have aphasia-like symptoms, you should call 911 (or your local emergency services number) to get medical attention immediately.
The time it takes to recover from aphasia depends on what caused it, how long it’s likely to last and the treatments involved. Your healthcare provider is the best person to tell you more about the timeline for you to feel better and recover.
Aphasia happens unpredictably, so it's not possible to prevent it. However, you can try to prevent conditions that cause it or reduce your risk of developing those conditions. Some of the things you can do include:
The outlook for aphasia depends on several factors. Your healthcare provider can tell you what is most likely to happen in your specific case.
In some cases, aphasia is a short-term problem and will go away quickly. For others, it might take weeks or even months for you to recover fully. Unfortunately, aphasia that happens because of permanent brain damage is often a life-long problem. Speech therapy might help improve aphasia symptoms but may not fully reverse this condition's effects.
There are many ways that people with aphasia can help themselves or work around the effects of this condition.
People who have aphasia can also do the following to take care of themselves:
There are several tips for people who have a loved one with aphasia. Some of these tips can help make your loved one's life easier and help them connect and communicate. Others can encourage their recovery or improve how they adapt to their condition. Some things you can do include:
If you gradually notice you have symptoms of aphasia, you should talk to a healthcare provider as soon as possible. You should also talk to your healthcare provider if you have aphasia symptoms that get worse over time. This is a sign of a degenerative brain disease rather than an injury or damage from conditions like stroke.
If aphasia symptoms appear suddenly, you should get emergency medical attention. When aphasia symptoms happen quickly or without warning, it can be a sign of stroke or another dangerous condition, so you should call 911 (or your local emergency services number) to get medical attention immediately.
You should also get help if you notice any of the symptoms of stroke (regardless of whether or not they happen along with symptoms of aphasia) in yourself or someone near you. Those symptoms include:
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Aphasia is a condition that affects a person’s ability to communicate with others, making it hard for them to speak or to understand what other people are saying. Because of that, people with it commonly feel lonely, isolated or afraid. While aphasia might go away on its own (especially with treatment of the underlying problems), it’s sometimes a permanent condition. However, people with aphasia can learn to adapt to the condition with the help of speech therapy. Technology also offers new ways to help people with aphasia communicate. That means people living with aphasia can still build connections and communicate with those around them, which means people with this condition can still find ways to communicate and feel understood.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 04/12/2022.
Learn more about our editorial process.