6 Medical Conditions That Can Cause You To Lose The Ability to Speak

What’s behind your voice and your ability to express yourself, and what can interfere

loss of speech

The power of speech is one of humanity’s most important abilities, allowing us to communicate quickly and directly. This was brought to light in a recent Chasing the Cure episode with Rori’s story. Rori used to be an elementary school teacher. Now, she’s lost the ability to walk and talk — and she’s actively seeking a diagnosis with the help of genetic testing. 

Rori's story was first featured on episode one of Chasing the Cure

Rori is not alone in losing her ability to talk. There are a number of medical conditions that can cause individuals to lose their power of speech, or alter the way in which you normally speak. 

Let’s have a look at what’s behind your voice and ability to express yourself, and six medical conditions that have the possibility to interfere with your speech.

Laryngitis: Of all the conditions on this list, laryngitis is the most common. Laryngitis happens when your vocal cords become inflamed from overuse (like from sing-screaming at a concert), irritation (like smoking or acid reflux) or an infection (like a common cold or virus). When your vocal cords are inflamed, they swell and make it hard for air to properly pass through to create the normal sound of your voice. Instead, your voice will come out hoarse — or not at all. Fluids and vocal rest will help your voice heal; the latter is particularly important, as strenuous vocal use during a bout of laryngitis can lead to permanent vocal damage.

Mutism: As the name suggests, mutism is a condition in which a person does not talk. This can be caused by either physical or emotional trauma. There are two main forms of mutism, neurogenic and psychogenic. Neurogenic mutism can come from a variety of factors, including dementia, brain injury and seizures as well as neurological conditions like Apraxia. Psychogenic mutism happens without any brain injury, and can be caused by factors like anxiety, stress or other emotional traumas. Psychogenic mutism is typically classified into three types: elective mutism (someone voluntarily not speaking for psychological reasons), selective speaking (someone wanting to speak, but finding they’re unable to under certain circumstances) and total mutism (someone doesn’t speak at all).

Foreign Accent Syndrome: Imagine going to bed and waking up with an English accent. That’s the exact phenomenon of someone suffering from Foreign Accent Syndrome. Following a stroke or head injury, parts of the brain controlling linguistic functions behave differently, leading the speaker to sound like they have suddenly acquired a new accent. In addition to the neurogenic form of FAS, there’s also a psychogenic form in which the patient does not suffer from any obvious brain damage, but is experiencing a psychiatric disorder like schizophrenia.

With neurogenic FAS, the patient may have this new accent for the rest of their life, while psychogenic FAS patients will typically lose their accent when the psychotic episode ends. Fun fact: The singer George Michael once emerged from a coma suffering from Foreign Accent Syndrome.

Dysarthria: People whose speech is slurred or slow might have dysarthria, which is caused by facial paralysis or muscle weakness associated with a variety of conditions, like stroke and multiple sclerosis. In some cases, people with dysarthria may have trouble controlling the volume of their speech and are sometimes unable to speak louder than a whisper.

Aphasia: Also caused by brain injuries, aphasia is a condition that impairs the Broca's and Wernicke's areas of the brain, which serve as the brain’s language centers. When the language centers are impaired, people have trouble reading or writing, as well as speaking or even understanding speech. Aphasia can take many forms. Sometimes it can be as mild as causing someone to forget basic words; however, it can get more complicated and cause an inability to read. Typically multiple communication aspects will become impaired. In severe cases, communication may become nearly impossible. However, aphasia can sometimes be overcome in an unexpected way: Because the two actions are controlled by different sides of the brain many aphasia sufferers who can’t speak can still sing

Spasmodic dysphonia: Doctors can point to a cause for most vocal loss, but the cause of spasmodic dysphonia is unknown. That said, some researchers believe there’s a link to a structure in the brain, called the basal ganglia, that controls the body’s involuntary movements, like those of the vocal cords. Without control over the involuntary motions of the voice box, the voice takes on unusual characteristics. Vocal cords may close and stiffen, giving your voice a strained quality; or they could stay open and leave your voice weak and quiet.

If you have lost your own speech, or are having trouble talking, consult with a physician to determine the cause and a safe treatment plan. 

Michael Darling is a journalist in Los Angeles.