Speech Problems in Multiple Sclerosis

Difficulties with Speaking and Tips to Overcome Them

frustrated woman talking on phone
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Do you ever feel like you "hear" the MS in your voice? You may notice your speaking cadence and rhythm are off -- that your tongue is tripping over syllables or slurring parts of words. 

When MS damages certain areas of the brain, especially the brainstem where the brain and spinal cord communicate, a speech problem called dysarthria may occur.

What Speech Problems Occur in MS?

Dysarthria is a motor speech disorder.

This means that the muscles you use to speak, like your lips, tongue, vocal cords, and diaphragm, cannot function properly.  

As a result of dysarthria, you can develop any number of speech problems. For instance, scanning speech is a form of dysarthria that causes people to speak in slow or strange rhythms, where syllables of words are separated by long pauses. Dysarthria can also manifest as a rapid and mumbling speech, slurred speech, or a change in voice quality, like a hoarse, raspy, or nasally speech. Some people have trouble controlling the volume of their speech, meaning a person ends up speaking too softly to be heard or more loudly than is appropriate.

Dysarthria should be differentiated from dysphasia or aphasia, both of which refer to problems understanding or communicating spoken or written words. Cognitive dysfunction can lead to word-finding difficulties, which also affects the overall fluidity of speech and ease of communication.

How Bad Can Speech Difficulties Get?

Only a very tiny percent of people will be rendered unable to speak. However, if this happens, there are assistive devices available to help them communicate, including high-tech options like devices with simulated voices, as well as low-tech options like hand-held cards.

How Can I Help My Speech Problems?

In the heat of the moment, try these three simple steps -- it may just give you the ease and confidence to get your words out clearly.

  • Cool down: step out of the heat or run your wrists under cold water
  • Calm down: take a deep breath and say a warming phrase to yourself like, "It's all good."
  • Slow down: keep your sentences short and take your time

If simple measures do not adequately control your speech problem, or if you are concerned that your speech problem is impacting your work or social life, a speech/language pathologist is a professional who can diagnose and treat your speech disorder. They can work with you and give you exercises to do on your own to improve your enunciation and overall rhythm of speech.

Bottom Line

While speech problems do not physically hurt and do not cause as much embarrassment as urinary incontinence or a public fall, they can cause significant anxiety and frustration. The good news is that your speech probably sounds worse to you than it does to others. After all, we are often our own worst critics.

Next time, if your speech is off, try communicating this to the person you are conversing with -- say you are feeling a bit more "speech challenged" that day.

Or you could opt to say nothing, and just let it be -- and that's OK too. 


American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. Dysarthria. Retrieved January 16th 2016. 

National MS Society. Speech Problems. Retrieved January 16th 2016. 

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