More than 70 million people around the world stutter when they speak. Stuttering is a speech disorder that causes the repetition of sounds and words, the prolongation of sounds, or stoppages that interrupt the flow of speech. Around four times as many men as women stutter, though stuttering can affect individuals of any age or sex. Many people wonder what causes stuttering. There are several types of stutters with a variety of possible causes.
Most health care professionals recognize three forms of stuttering: developmental, neurogenic, and psychogenic. Developmental stuttering most commonly appears in children under the age of five. As children develop their language and speech abilities, they may experience issues vocalizing their thoughts. Neurogenic stutters are the result of issues that inhibit the abilities of the brain, nerves, or muscles to send and receive the signals that enable speech. Psychogenic stutters originate from the area of the brain that controls thinking and reasoning. Originally, medical experts thought all stutters had a psychological cause and were therefore psychogenic. Doctors now know this is incorrect and realize that psychogenic stutters are rare.
Many researchers believe developmental stuttering is the result of a disconnect between a child’s desires and their actual vocal abilities. Often, a child will have an idea of what they wish to say. Unfortunately, their speech and language abilities have not yet developed to a level that they can properly vocalize their thoughts. The result is a stutter. Recent studies show there may be a genetic factor that contributes to developmental stuttering.
Many issues can cause neurogenic stuttering, including strokes, head trauma, and brain injuries. Neurogenic disorders are also a frequent symptom of degenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s. Any condition that causes the brain to struggle with coordinating the various processes that enable speech can result in a neurogenic stutter. In many cases, a person with a neurogenic stutter had no speech disorder prior to the causal event.
Modern views of psychogenic stuttering are particularly interesting. By definition, a psychogenic stutter is the result of a psychological or emotional issue. However, many serious psychological and emotional issues develop from neurological disorders or problems. Research suggests that the primary causes of psychogenic stutters include high levels of stress or extreme emotional trauma. In some people, the demands of school or work may be major contributors to the development of a psychogenic stutter.
Most people think of a stutter as the repetition of certain noises or words. Stutters may also present as abnormal stoppages or blocks to speech or extended sounds such as a particularly long vowel sound at the beginning of a word. Beyond vocal and speech issues, stuttering can also cause other effects. Many people with stutters develop anxiety, particularly at the thought of speaking in front of more than one person. In some instances, a person with a stutter may have excess facial tension as they struggle to move past a stutter while speaking.
Numerous people with stutters experience extreme frustration when they struggle to vocalize a thought properly. This can lead to stress or frustration-related issues such as rapid eye blinks, facial tremors, physical tics, and clenched fists. Many stutters advance in frequency and severity when a person experiences stress, excitement, or nervousness. This can lead to a vicious cycle as speaking becomes continually more difficult. Some people with stutters begin to avoid situations where they must speak. These issues may require treatment for additional concerns beyond stuttering.
For young children, early therapy and treatment can prevent a stutter from becoming a lifelong issue. One of the most important parts of treating childhood stutters is teaching children to have a positive attitude towards communication. Most treatments involve putting the child in an environment conducive to speech. Parents shouldn’t attempt to force their child to speak but should provide many opportunities for them to do so. Parents should also listen attentively, focusing on the meaning of what the child says. Children with stutters also tend to respond positively to adults who speak in a slow and precise manner.
Adults can also learn to limit their stutters, though it can be a long and difficult process. Speech therapy often teaches patients that it is okay to speak slowly and surely. If a stutter tends to occur in specific situations or on a specific sound, counselors may design exercises around these situations. As therapy progresses, the counselor may begin to direct patients to speak more quickly as they learn to reduce their stuttering.
People with stutters that worsen in response to emotion or psychogenic stutters often require treatment outside of speech therapy. Cognitive-behavioral therapy has become a popular treatment for a variety of issues. The core of the therapy focuses on enabling a positive mindset in the face of a seemingly negative condition. For stutters, sessions may include activities that allow individuals to reduce their stress level or learn coping methods for emotional trauma. Stutters that are a source of anxiety may require activities that help the individual build their confidence when speaking.
Technological approaches to stutter treatment have produced promising results. One device fits comfortably in the ear and replays a slightly altered version of the wearer’s speech. This allows the person to feel as though they are speaking in unison with another person. The perception of speaking in unison has a positive effect on stutters. Currently, research is focusing on the long term effectiveness of these devices, as well as how effective they can be in common situations.
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