My husband's speech patterns have changed — What's going on here? A stroke?

Dear Alice,

Re: My husband's speech

He is 61-years-old and for the last few days, has a hard time saying words. He seems to stutter and just can't get the words out right. I'm worried about maybe a slight stroke. I am going to call the Doc. Monday morning. What else should I do?

Dear Reader,  

Watching a loved one suddenly struggle with communication issues that didn't previously exist can be a worrying experience. Only a health care provider can assess and diagnose your husband, so it’s good that you’re reaching out to one about your concerns. If you do suspect that your husband has experienced a stroke, it’s highly recommended to seek emergency care as soon as possible, as catching a stroke early helps minimize long-term damage. If you aren’t sure, keep reading to learn about other potential causes of your husband’s stutter.  

It might be helpful to have a better understanding of what happens with a stroke, sometimes referred to as “brain attacks,” to determine if that’s what your husband experienced. A stroke occurs when a blood clot blocks a blood vessel in the brain (ischemic stroke) or when a blood vessel bursts, causing bleeding into the brain (hemorrhagic stroke). There’s also a condition called transient ischemic attack (TIA), or mini stroke, which resembles an ischemic stroke without causing permanent damage. Strokes damage the brain by preventing normal blood flow and oxygen from getting to the brain tissue; thus, it interferes with brain functioning, affecting thinking, talking, walking, etc. Some common symptoms of strokes to look out for include:  

  • Difficulty speaking or understanding others  
  • Facial paralysis (e.g., facial droop)  
  • Blurred vision in one or both eyes  
  • Dizziness and difficulty walking  

If you do suspect your husband is having a stroke, there’s a FAST test that you can go through to determine if emergency medical care is needed:  

  • Face: Ask your husband to smile and notice if one side starts to droop compared to the other.  
  • Arm: Have your husband raise both his arms. Notice if one side is lopsided compared to the other.  
  • Speech: Give your husband a phrase to repeat back to you. Does he have difficulty with speaking it or does it sound strange?  
  • Time: If any of these symptoms are observed, emergency care might be necessary.  

List adapted from Mayo Clinic.  

It's helpful to note that a person who experiences a stroke is at a higher risk of having another stroke in the near future. Strokes are particularly common in people who smoke regularly, heavy alcohol drinkers, or who have certain medical conditions, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or diabetes. The risk of stroke also seems to be tied to family history of stroke. If the health care provider suspects that your husband had a stroke, they may order tests, such as a CT or MRI scan, to confirm the diagnosis.  

You mention that your husband has been stuttering. Stuttering is a speech disorder that disrupts the fluency and flow of normal speech. Some symptoms of stuttering include difficulty with starting words or phrases, repetition of words or phrases, or extra pauses or stutter words such as “like,” “um,” etc. Does your husband or others in his family have a history of stuttering as a child? Acquiring stuttering as an adult is extremely rare. It could be that your husband had a speech impediment as a child and has relapsed. If there's no history of stuttering, it's possible what he’s experiencing could be due to a brain injury, such as one that occurs after having a stroke or suffering from dementia. However, more research is needed to determine how exactly strokes and stuttering relate to each other.  

Developing a stutter doesn’t necessarily mean that your husband has suffered a stroke or brain injury, however. Perhaps your husband has been going through intense feelings of emotion or anxiety, making it more difficult for him to express himself or communicate. If your husband had a change in medications lately, that could also impact his speech patterns. Finally, any issues in the mouth — such as jaw, gum, or teeth pain — may make it harder for your husband to speak. A health professional may help determine the cause of your husband’s stuttering, even if a stroke isn’t the culprit. If you’re still worried or unsure, consider taking your husband for emergency treatment as soon as possible to be sure.  

Last updated Jan 29, 2021
Originally published Apr 16, 2004

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