Smartphone autocorrect is famous for scrambling messages into unintelligible gibberish but when one man received this garbled text from his 11-week-pregnant wife, it alarmed him:
“every where thinging days nighing,” her text read. “Some is where!”
Though that may sound like every text you’ve ever received, the woman’s husband knew her autocorrect was turned off. Fearing some medical issue, he made sure his 25-year-old wife went immediately to the emergency room.
When she got there, doctors noted that she was disoriented, couldn’t use her right arm and leg properly and had some difficulty speaking. A magnetic resonance imaging scan — MRI — revealed that part of the woman’s brain wasn’t getting enough blood. The diagnosis was stroke.
Fortunately, the story has a happy ending. A short hospital stay and some low-dose blood thinners took care of the symptoms and the rest of her pregnancy was uneventful.
The three doctors from Boston’s Harvard Medical School, who reported the case study online in this week’s Archives of Neurology, claim this is the first instance they know of where an aberrant text message was used to help diagnose a stroke. In their report, they refer to the woman’s inability to text properly as “dystextia,” a word coined by medical experts in an earlier case.
Dystextia appears to be a new form of aphasia, a term that refers to any trouble processing language, be it spoken or written. The authors of the Archives paper said that at least theoretically, incoherent text messages will be used more often to flag strokes and other neurological abnormalities that lead to the condition.
“As the accessibility of electronic communication continues to advance, the growing digital record will likely become an increasingly important means of identifying neurologic disease, particularly in patient populations that rely more heavily on written rather than spoken communication,” they wrote.
Even though jumbled texts are so common, Dr. Larry Goldstein, a neurologist who is the director of the stroke center at Duke University, said he also believes it’s possible they can be used to sound the alarm on a person’s neurological state, especially in a case like this where the text consisted of complete words that amounted to nonsense rather than the usual autocorrected muddle.
“It would have been very easy to dismiss because of the normal problems with texting but this was a whole conversation that wasn’t making sense,” Goldstein said. “I might be concerned about a patient based on a text like this if they were telling me they hadn’t intended to send a disjointed jumble but they weren’t able to correct themselves.”
In diagnosing stroke, Goldstein said both patients and medical professionals tend to discount aphasic symptoms, even in speech, but they can often be the first clue something is up. In this woman’s case, other signs were there. Her obstetrician realized in retrospect that she’d had trouble filling out a form earlier in the day. She had difficulties speaking too which might also have been picked up sooner if a recent upper respiratory infection hadn’t reduced her voice to a whisper.
But unlike this woman, most people leave their autocorrect turned on. If we relied solely on maddeningly unintelligible text messages to determine neurological state, neurologists might have lines out the door.