Everything You Need to Know About the Most Common Speech Disorders

Many people experience a speech problem when learning how to talk. Some may experience it into adulthood, too.

Medically reviewed in April 2021

Roughly 40 million Americans have some sort of communication disorder, according to the American Speech-Language Hearing Association. A speech disorder, specifically, occurs when someone has trouble producing sounds correctly for speaking, like in a stutter or a lisp. For some, speech disorders fade away before adulthood; for others, they stay permanently.

Here are five common speech disorders and how to better manage them.

Stuttering
A stutter is commonly known to be a series of broken speech patterns, like repetitions of sounds repetitions and prolongations, or hesitations of words. A recent study suggests it's caused by a lack of blood flow in the Broca’s area of the brain, which is linked to speech production.

Genetics and family dynamics may also be to blame. Children learn how to speak at home, so if a family member currently has a speech disorders, it may increase a child’s risk of developing one herself. Behavioral therapy, the most common type of therapy for stutterers, focuses on breath control and learning to talk in shorter phrases.

Dysarthria
Dysarthria is a condition in which people have difficulty expressing certain words because muscles in the tongue, mouth and vocal cords are too weak. It occurs when there’s damage to the brain or nervous system after a trauma, like a stroke or tumor.

A speech or language therapist will recommend treatment based on the severity of the condition, with special attention paid to strengthening facial muscles and managing frustration.

Lisping
If you have a difficult time pronouncing “S” and “Z,” you may have a lisp, which happens when your tongue placement isn’t quite right during speech. When you speak with a lisp, it’s common for your tongue to stick out between your front teeth, and it can sound like saliva is coming out of your mouth. Children may develop a lisp when they're learning new sounds, but most of the time, they will grow out of it by the age of six of seven.

Treatment exercises will work on oral movements, like tongue placement, and speech accuracy, so that speaking will become smoother.

Spasmodic Dysphonia
Approximately 50,000 people in North America are affected by Spasmodic Dysphonia, a condition in which the voice box contracts and gives off the jerky, hoarse or tight sounds when talking.

Currently, there's no known cause and no cure for this speech impediment, but there are treatment options to help manage the symptoms. The most common are voice therapy and small botulinum toxin injections, which weaken muscles of the larynx and help protect the vocal chords.

Other reasons for voice disorders
Caused by screaming too much, constantly clearing your throat, or illnesses like the flu and the common cold, voice disorders that are structural, like polyps and nodules, and functional, like a vocal tremor or spasmodic dysphonia, which make it harder to speak. Symptoms include an achy, raspy throat, sudden voice changes and difficulty talking.

Depending on the cause and when it's diagnosed, treatment options will probably include medication used to address the underlying cause such as GERD or allergies, as well as speech therapy to help correct articulation and fluency.

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