What Is Wernicke’s Aphasia?

Medically Reviewed by Christopher Melinosky, MD on August 08, 2023
4 min read

Wernicke’s aphasia is a language disorder that makes it hard for you to understand words and communicate.

This disorder is caused by damage to the part of your brain that controls language. It leads to a loss of language ability and can be very frustrating.

There are different types of aphasia that cause different language problems. The disorder is grouped into two general categories. These include receptive aphasia and expressive aphasia.

Wernicke’s aphasia. Wernicke’s aphasia is another name for receptive aphasia. It happens when the area of your brain that controls language called the Wernicke area is damaged. This condition is also called sensory aphasia or fluent aphasia. People with this type of aphasia have damage to their brain’s temporal lobe. As a result, they are sometimes unable to comprehend what others are saying but are able to speak in long sentences. However, their communication doesn't follow standard grammar patterns and uses made-up words. They speak with regular rhythm and grammar. But the words don’t make sense. They don’t realize that what they’re saying is nonsense.

Wernicke’s aphasia can also cause problems with your reading and writing. You might be able to see or hear words but not understand them.

Broca’s aphasia. Broca's aphasia is also known as expressive aphasia. It's a non-fluent aphasia, which causes individuals to speak slower. People with Broca’s aphasia have trouble saying words but can understand language. They can form ideas and know what they want to say. Yet they can't form sentences. Broca’s aphasia occurs when the brain’s frontal lobe suffers damage. As such, the following results:

  • The frontal lobe is the region where motor movements are located. People with Broca’s aphasia have weakness or paralysis of their right arm and leg. 
  • People with Broca’s aphasia often feel frustrated due to being able to comprehend what others are saying, but unable to express themselves. 
  • Individuals affected typically only can speak in very short phrases, or have trouble getting words out.

Wernicke’s aphasia causes you to speak in a jumbled “word salad” that others can’t understand. Broca’s aphasia leaves you with limited language. You might only be able to say single words or very short sentences. But others can usually understand what you mean.

Symptoms of Wernicke’s aphasia include:

  • Saying many words that don’t make sense
  • Unable to understand the meaning of words
  • Able to speak well in long sentences but they don’t make sense
  • Using the wrong words or nonsense words
  • Unable to understand written words
  • Trouble writing
  • Frustration

Others might have trouble understanding you if you have Wernicke’s aphasia because of paraphrastic errors. These errors are when you replace a word or sound with another word or sound.

You might say “telescope” instead of “glasses” or “classes” instead of “glasses.” You might even make up a new word. The rest of the sentence could be correct or it may be a jumble of words.

People with Wernicke’s aphasia typically don’t realize they’re not making sense. This can lead to frustration as they are continually misunderstood.

Wernicke’s aphasia is caused by damage to your brain. It is usually on the left side. This aphasia results from loss of blood flow to your brain or other damage caused by:

  • Stroke
  • Encephalitis, or brain inflammation
  • Head injury
  • Brain infection

Progressive damage in your brain leads to worsening aphasia in some cases. These can include a growing brain tumor or dementia. Your aphasia might also get worse as your illness advances.

There aren’t any standard treatments for Wernicke’s aphasia. Your doctor might recommend different treatments or therapies.

Treating other causes. If you have another condition like an infection, treating it might help. The treatment depends on the problem. For example, your doctor might recommend steroids for lesions in some areas of your brain that are causing aphasia symptoms.

Speech therapy. This is the main treatment for aphasia. The goal in speech therapy is to help you gain better use of the language ability you still have, improve your language skills, and learn how to communicate in different ways.

Group speech therapy can also be useful to practice skills with others and reduce your feelings of isolation.

Speech devices. Technology that uses pictures or speech can help you communicate. These don’t improve your language skills but are another way to express yourself.

Speech devices can also help caregivers communicate with you and understand your needs better.

Some people who get Wernicke’s aphasia fully recover without treatment. Children under 8 years old often regain language ability even after severe damage.

Most people need speech therapy. Recovery usually happens within 3 months. But aphasia may take up to a year to improve. Lots of people don’t regain full language ability. This can cause frustration for you and your caregivers.

Caregivers, friends, and family need to adapt and learn new ways to communicate. A speech therapist can help your family learn new methods. These can include:

  • Using shorter, simple sentences
  • Asking yes or no questions
  • Using natural, adult language and conversation
  • Not correcting speech
  • Using pointing, pictures, drawing, or devices
  • Including people with aphasia in conversations
  • Allowing lots of time for people with aphasia to express themselves

You can practice simple sentences in a quiet space on your own if you have aphasia. Try practicing with your speech therapist and then with friends and family as you get more comfortable. Communicating and speech practice will help you feel connected to others.