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When a stutter appears out of nowhere

It seems stammering is having a moment: Early this morning, "The King's Speech" received 12 Academy Award nominations, more than any other film this year. One of those nods went to Colin Firth, who many expect to win for his portrayal of King George VI, the English king with a debilitating stammer. Now the speech impediment is all the Internet can talk about.

But one type of stammer that's not being widely discussed is sudden onset stuttering. For most, stuttering begins in childhood, while children are developing language skills – but in rare cases, it can come come on suddenly, mangling the speech of adults who'd never struggled with the problem before.

The cause of sudden onset stuttering is either neurogenic (meaning the brain has trouble sending signals to nerves, muscles or areas of the brain that control speaking) or psychogenic (caused by emotional problems). A sudden stutter can be caused by a number of things: brain trauma, epilepsy, drug abuse (particularly heroin), chronic depression or even attempted suicide using barbiturates, according to the National Institutes of Health.

In sudden cases sparked by underlying psychological issues, "often times, you can find that it's not so sudden; there might be a history of stuttering that had been outgrown," says Dr. Tommie L. Robinson, former president of American Speech-Language-Hearing Association and director of the speech and hearing program at Children’s Nation Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

According to one 1998 case report, a 30-year-old woman hit her head in a car crash, and the trauma to her brain appeared to cause a temporary stutter.  And in a 1982 case, a 28-year-old man developed a stutter after a suicide attempt; his doctors believe his sudden speech impediment was the result of psychological distress.

The movie hints that the king’s trouble with speech may have been psychogenic, as it may have been the result of the extreme pressure he felt from his father. (When he begins to have trouble getting out the words, his father demands, “Get it out, boy!” Not exactly helpful.) Experts once believed all cases of stuttering were psychogenic, but that particular cause is actually known to be very rare. In fact, last year scientists isolated three genes that cause stuttering.

Oh, and in case you were wondering: stuttering and stammering are synonymous, Robinson says. "'Stammering' is more of a British thing," he explains.

Some quick facts on stuttering from the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders:

  • Stuttering affects people of all ages, but it most often begins in children ages 2 to 5, as they develop language skills.
  • About 5 percent of all children stutter at some point in their life.
  • Boys are twice as likely to stutter as girls – and as they grow up, the number of boys who continue to stutter is three to four times larger than the number of girls.
  • Most children grow out of their stutter. Only about 1 percent of adults stutter.

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