Aphasia affects some 250,000 people in the UK, usually as the result of a stroke, but there is treatment available. Dan Parton reports.

In this article:

  • What is aphasia?
  • Symptoms
  • Treatment

What is aphasia?

Aphasia is the total or partial loss of the ability to speak, understand language, read or use written words or numbers. The condition is also sometimes known as dysphasia.
It is caused by damage to the area of the brain that controls language – usually the left hemisphere – often through a stroke, head injury, progressive neurological disease e.g. Alzheimer’s or a neurological condition such as a brain tumour.

Aphasia can make everyday tasks impossible, such as making telephone calls or having a conversation. The condition is often taken as a symptom that the individual has lost their intelligence, but this is not the case.

Stroke is the most common cause of aphasia in the UK, and about 1/3 people who have a stroke go on to experience some form of aphasia.

In about 50% of cases, aphasia is only temporary and people make a complete recovery within a short time.

Nevertheless, about 250,000 people in the UK suffer from permanent aphasia – many under the age of 65 – 20,000 new cases are diagnosed each year.


The symptoms of aphasia can vary from being unable to think of a few words through to being unable to speak, read or write at all.

There are three main types of aphasia:

  • Broca’s aphasia: this is characterised by difficulty in speaking. The person may only be able to use short words and only make short utterances – usually of less than 4 words – and the formation of words can be awkward. Their ability to write can also become limited, although they can still read and understand language.
  • Wernicke’s aphasia: here the person may be able to talk freely, but what they say may have little or no meaning and they could use unnecessary words or create new ones. In addition, their ability to understand speech is impaired, so they are unlikely to realise that what they say makes no sense to others. Reading and writing can also be severely impaired.
  • Anomic aphasia: this is where the person cannot supply the words they need to talk about specific things – usually verbs and nouns – so speech, while grammatically correct, is full of vagueness. This extends to writing. However, the sufferer can usually understand speech and read relatively well.

Other forms of aphasia exist – global, subcortical and transcortical – but they are less common. Global is the most severe form as it affects all forms of communication i.e. reading, writing, speaking, the ability to accurately name objects etc.

Those with aphasia are also prone to depression due to the emotional stress of the condition. However, they can have difficulty expressing their emotions, so it can be tricky to spot if they are really depressed or not.


In some cases, people with aphasia can recover some speech and language without treatment as a result of natural brain healing and them recovering their overall health.

But where this does not happen, the most common treatment for aphasia is speech and language therapy (abbreviated widely to SLT), either on an individual or group basis.

Therapy should help to improve their communication skills, find new ways of communicating, adapt to their new situation and regain their confidence in communicating with others.

The recovery rate for aphasia depends on how severe the brain damage is and which area of the brain is affected. Even if damage is severe, improvements can be made even after several years.