The symptoms of multiple sclerosis (MS) can vary from one person to the next, and many people with the condition report issues communicating. In fact, one study of people with MS found that nearly 76 percent of participants experienced communication changes during their disease course, including speech changes, fluency shifts, and voice issues.
For people who live with symptoms that impact their ability to communicate, finding solutions can be paramount. Check out four tips on managing communication changes from speech-language therapist Suzanne Buckley of the United Kingdom’s National Health Service. Buckley shared the insights during a recent presentation by the Multiple Sclerosis Trust.
One of the most common communication issues among people with MS is dysarthria, which involves problems with speech. It occurs in about half of people living with MS, Buckley said. “That can cause speech to sound slurred, too quiet, or too fast,” she said. “Speaking loudly, slowly, and clearly is something that can actually be learned and practiced to improve how well you’re understood by others.”
Techniques such as speaking slowly and overexaggerating can help, as can good posture, she said. “Often, we tell people, ‘Imagine yourself on stage and giving a performance.’ And by thinking this way, it automatically makes you think big,” she said. “You’re projecting your voice, you’re thinking about your posture, you’re thinking about your breath support, and you slow your speech down — and that all helps to produce the best clarity.”
Buckley noted the importance of working with a speech-language therapist to better understand and tailor treatment. “There can be many different types and combinations of dysarthria, so it’s important that your speech-language therapist explains to you what’s happening so you can focus on the specific aspects of your speech that are the most unclear,” she noted.
People who are having communication problems should make sure the people they’re talking to also make accommodations to help, Buckley said. “They can help by doing things like facing you, reducing any background noise or distractions like the TV or the radio, or repeating back the bits that they heard so you know you don’t have to repeat it all again from the beginning.”
Everyone knows what it’s like to forget a word — or to have it on the tip of your tongue but not be able to remember it. However, for people with MS, this issue can be compounded, making communicating frustrating. However, Buckley says, people can better manage this issue if they’re open and honest with others.
“There are also psychological techniques, such as owning what’s happening to you, and normalizing it. Just allowing yourself that control back helps you to feel more in control,” Buckley said. “Just saying, with no apologies, with complete transparency, ‘Look, I’ve got difficulties finding the right word sometimes because I have MS.’ That in itself will just give you the chance to own the situation, and that’s going to help boost your confidence.”
Buckley also offered strategies for remembering words and keeping conversations flowing. “If it’s taking longer than a few seconds to get to the word, your brain has effectively taken you down a path and it’s got a brick wall at the end, so you need to reverse that,” she said. “Back up the path and find a different route. And you do that by talking around the word — describing where you might find it, what it looks like, anything that helps you block that barrier.”
A neurology team or speech therapist may recommend augmentative and alternative communication devices to help people with MS communicate more effectively. These can include using an app on a mobile device to communicate with text or images; it can also include using speech-generating applications or devices that turn text into words. “That can be a really big help,” she said.
Learn more about speech problems and MS.