What Slurred Speech Could Mean

Medically Reviewed By Heidi Moawad, M.D.
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Slurred speech stems from a problem with controlling the muscles in your mouth and throat. Causes of slurred speech include alcohol or drug intoxication, brain damage, neuromuscular disorders, and stroke. Promptly contact a doctor for any change in your speech. Slurred speech is often considered a synonym of the medical term “dysarthria,” but they are not the same thing, according to the National Aphasia Association. It defines dysarthria as a “speech disorder…characterized by poor articulation, respiration, and/or phonation. This includes slurred, slow, effortful…speech.” So, slurred speech is one of the symptoms of dysarthria.

The brain and motor neurons control the movement of muscles in the mouth and throat required for speech production. Neurological damage can cause dysarthria and slurred speech. However, a person can experience slurred speech and not have dysarthria.

Someone with dysarthria may also:

  • mumble
  • talk too fast
  • talk too slow
  • have a hoarse or raspy voice
  • have a robotic-like sound
  • have difficulty moving their tongue, lips, or jaw
  • use the wrong words
  • have problems understanding others

This article will discuss when to contact a doctor for slurred speech. It will also examine the possible causes, related symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment of slurred speech.

When to see a doctor for slurred speech

Slurred speech can be a symptom of a stroke, drug overdose, brain injury, or another condition. Always seek medical care straightaway for slurred speech.

Call 911 for sudden slurred speech or any of these other stroke symptoms:

  • numbness or weakness on one side of the body
  • sudden change in vision, loss of vision, or eye pain
  • difficulty with memory, thinking, writing, or reading
  • severe headache
  • change in consciousness or alertness, such as passing out

What causes slurred speech?

man looking at woman as she speaks
Tessy Morelli/Stocksy

The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) explains that proper speech requires the brain, mouth, tongue, throat, and breathing muscles. Damage or disease affecting any of these organs could cause slurred speech or dysarthria.

Some people are born with conditions, such as cerebral palsy, that cause slurred speech. Other times, it can develop later in life.

Causes of slurred speech range from temporary to chronic conditions that do not go away. Causes include:

What other symptoms might occur with slurred speech?

Conditions that affect your ability to speak may cause other symptoms too. These conditions may involve parts of the nervous system that control speech or the speech muscles themselves.

Brain and nerve symptoms

Symptoms involving the brain and nerves can include:

Muscle symptoms

Symptoms involving the muscles can include:

  • difficulty chewing or swallowing
  • drooling
  • muscle weakness

How is the cause of slurred speech diagnosed?

To diagnose the cause of slurred speech, a doctor will evaluate your symptoms, take a medical history, and perform a physical exam.

Testing

Tests your doctor may order include:

  • a neurological exam, which tests your reflexes, balance, and mental status
  • blood and urine tests, which can help identify a toxic substance or infection
  • imaging exams, which may include a brain CT scan or MRI
  • nervous system studies, such as electroencephalography and electromyography

Questions your doctor may ask

To diagnose the underlying cause of slurred speech, your healthcare professional will ask you several question, which may include:

  • How long have you had slurred speech?
  • Did your slurred speech develop slowly or suddenly?
  • Have you experienced any recent injuries or trauma?
  • Do you have any other symptoms?
  • What medications are you taking?

What are some ways to treat slurred speech?

Treatment for slurred speech depends on the cause, severity, and how much it impacts your daily life. Some conditions may resolve with time as the tissues in the brain, nerve pathways, or muscles heal. For instance, Bell’s palsy typically subsides in a few weeks.

Medical treatment for other conditions that cause slurred speech, such as Parkinson’s disease, may reduce the effect on speech.

Speech therapy

For slurred speech due to permanent neurological changes, you will likely receive a referral to a speech-language pathologist (SLP). This person will study how you say single words and sentences. They will also evaluate your breathing as you talk. They will develop a therapy and treatment plan that fits your needs. The SLP may focus on:

  • slowing your speech
  • taking in more air before you speak
  • exercises to strengthen the muscles you use in your face and throat to speak
  • moving your lips and tongue more to help clarify words

Alternative communication methods

In someone with severe speech difficulties, or dysarthria, the SLP will add on therapy, such as showing you different ways of communicating. This is augmentative and alternative communication. These range from hand gestures to computers:

  • gestures
  • facial expressions
  • writing and drawing
  • pointing to or using pictures (particularly useful for young children and people who do not have the motor skills to write)
  • touch screen computers
  • speech-generating devices

What is the outlook for someone with slurred speech?

The outlook for a person with slurred speech varies greatly depending on its severity and other factors. Slurred speech from some causes is permanent. In other cases, treating the underlying cause may increase speech clarity.

When slurred speech comes on suddenly, it may be due to a stroke. Fast diagnosis and treatment can help prevent permanent brain damage and loss of function, including dysarthria.

The American Stroke Association says to use the letters in F.A.S.T to spot a stroke:

  • F: face drooping on one side
  • A: arm weakness on one side
  • S: speech difficulty
  • T: time to call 911

Frequently asked questions

Questions people ask about slurred speech include:

When should I be concerned about slurred speech?

Sudden onset of slurred speech is a sign of a stroke and other serious conditions, so it is always a concern.

Does slurred speech always mean a stroke?

No. Other causes include drug intoxication, medication side effects, Bell’s palsy, and Parkinson’s disease, among many other conditions.

Is slurred speech a symptom of anxiety?

Yes, slurred speech is a possible symptom of anxiety and emotional stress.

What neurological disorders cause speech problems?

Dementia, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, Bell’s palsy, and brain damage are among the many neurological disorders that can cause speech problems.

Summary

Slurred speech is often considered a synonym of the medical term “dysarthria,” but they are not the same thing. Rather, slurred speech is one possible sign of dysarthria.

Temporary and permanent damage to the brain and nerves that control muscle movement, including drug intoxication, stroke, traumatic brain injury, multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, and Bell’s palsy, can cause slurred speech.

Treating the underlying cause may resolve slurred speech. An SLP is a specialist who can evaluate your speech, language, and breathing. Speech therapy and alternative communication methods may help a person with dysarthria communicate better. This can help them stay engaged with loved ones and avoid social withdrawal.

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Medical Reviewer: Heidi Moawad, M.D.
Last Review Date: 2022 Mar 21
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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