Dr. Murray Feingold: Get a handle on speech

Dr. Murray Feingold

Stuttering is not rare, affecting about 1 percent of the population. If it is severe and persists, it can be associated with social and psychological problems.

Some famous people who stuttered are Winston Churchill, Carley Simon and actor Bruce Willis.

The average onset of stuttering is 4 years old. The good news is that 75 percent of young children who stutter stop by the time they are teenagers. It's not uncommon for very young children to stutter, with it usually going away in a few weeks.

Stuttering is about three times more common in boys than girls.

There are various causes of stuttering, including developmental, neurological, psychological and genetic causes.

Developmental stuttering is a common form of stuttering and occurs during the time when children are in the process of developing speech and language. It takes place when the child, while attempting to say something, does not have the ability to do so. As the child becomes better able to express him or herself, the stuttering usually goes away.

At one time it was believed that the most common cause of stuttering was psychological. However, it is now believed that, although people who stutter may develop psychological problems, it is uncommon for emotional difficulties to be the cause of stuttering.

Some forms of stuttering are genetic and have been shown to be present in families.

Another type of stuttering is neurological. For some reason, the brain is unable to coordinate the various components that are necessary for normal speech.

Imaging studies of the brain have shown an over-activity in certain parts of the speech center and under-activity in other areas of the brain. The normal flow of speech in people who stutter is disrupted by the presence of frequent repetitions of words or prolongation of speech sounds.

Certain situations may make the stuttering worse, such as talking on a phone or before an audience. The stuttering improves when a person sings or speaks alone.

Treatment includes speech therapy. People who stutter need to slow down their speech and prolong the sounds that make up the words they use. It is important to learn how to breathe properly and to coordinate the use of the vocal cords, tongue and lips.

The use of computers is also helpful as it allows the individual to actually see the sound changes that take place when stuttering, making it easier to correct these errors.

With proper treatment, the majority of people who stutter can be helped.

Dr. Murray Feingold is the Boston-area physician in chief of the National Birth Defects Center, medical editor of WBZ-TV and WBZ radio, and president of the Genesis Fund. The Genesis Fund is a nonprofit organization that funds the care of children born with birth defects, mental retardation and genetic diseases.