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What Is Stuttering?

Stuttering is a speech disorder that disrupts the natural flow of speech, marked by repeating, pausing, or prolonging certain sounds and syllables. Individuals who stutter know what they want to say; the challenge lies in producing the physical sound. Around 70 million people worldwide stutter, representing 1 percent of the global population. Stuttering is most common in young children, but 75 percent eventually outgrow the condition, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Stuttering takes two forms. Developmental stuttering begins in childhood and may materialize when the child wants to express language, but their speech skills haven’t fully developed yet. The causes of stuttering are not fully understood, but genetics plays an important role: The risk of stuttering is three times higher when a first degree relative has the condition, according to the DSM-5. The second type of stuttering, neurogenic stuttering, occurs as a result of brain injury such as stroke or head trauma.

Stuttering varies widely by setting. For example, stuttering is often exacerbated during public speaking but disappears while singing or reading. A difficult cycle underlying the condition is that stuttering can lead to anxiety while speaking, which in turn can lead to more stuttering—especially in pressured situations such as a school presentation or job interview. Behaviors including eye blinks, lip tremors, and head jerks can accompany stuttering as well. Stuttering has the potential to harm relationships, academic goals, and professional pursuits—but there are effective strategies to treat the condition.

How to Treat Stuttering and Stammering

People often work with a speech therapist to alleviate stuttering. Techniques for parents of children who stutter include providing plenty of time to talk in a relaxed environment, not rushing or interrupting, and speaking more slowly themselves. Adults who stutter can speak more slowly, use breathing exercises to relax, and address the accompanying anxiety. No medications are currently approved to treat stuttering, but drugs for epilepsy, anxiety, and depression may be helpful, although they are not without side effects. An electronic device, similar to a hearing aid, can also help people who stutter to speak more fluently.

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