If you or a loved one recently had a stroke and are looking for answers, this article is for you. First off, the basic premise of this article is that you can recover from stroke. And we’ll show you how.
This article will help you understand the stroke recovery process by covering:
- How your brain will heal
- What your treatment options are
- How to avoid common misconceptions
Whether you’re a stroke survivor, caregiver, friend, or family member, we hope you find this article useful.
It Starts with the Brain
The big idea: Rehab starts in the brain, not the body
Imbalances aren’t caused by weak muscles, they’re caused by weak communication from your brain, which can be healed through neuroplasticity, the mechanism your brain uses to rewire itself after injury. For those who are unfamiliar with this topic, here’s a quick explanation.
When a stroke damages a specific area of the brain, your neurons can no longer retrieve the information once stored there. For example, when motor center is damaged, those neurons can no longer access information about moving your muscles, which causes difficulty moving one side of your body.
Neuroplasticity comes into play by dedicating new neurons to the missing information, and you have plenty of neurons to work with. Adults have roughly 100 billion neurons, and we only use about 10% of them.
A great book that covers this topic in depth is The Brain that Changes Itself by Norman Doidge. It’s one of our top recommended stroke recovery books.
How to Make Neuroplasticity Work
The big idea: You naturally get really good at what you repeatedly do – it’s how you’ll get your movement back
In order to dedicate new neurons to new skills, you need to repeat the skill-related task over and over and over. Each time you repeat an action or thought, it makes those connections between your neurons stronger and stronger.
This works for both physical action and mental action.
Neuroplasticity can also be triggered by visualizing yourself doing a task over and over. New studies have shown that combining physical practice with mental practice leads to better results. For more information see our article on mental practice for stroke recovery.
The big idea: There are so many options, and you should explore them all
Upon leaving the hospital, you will receive physical therapy to help regain functional movement in your body. Your therapists are all well-trained, but their resources are limited, so they’ll help you as best as they can, but they’re limited by what they have on hand.
If you’re discharged and you still want to pursue recovery at home – which you should – then you’ll need to experiment with different therapy options. Here are some treatments that we’ve covered so far.
For cognitive healing:
- Music therapy – promotes recovery through enriched environment
- Video game therapy – promotes reasoning, problem solving, and fine motor skills
- Singing therapy – an excellent option for aphasia, impaired speech
For hand and upper limb recovery:
- MusicGlove hand therapy – music, video game, and hand therapy combined into one
- Mirror therapy – tricking your mind into recovering hand movement
- Constraint-induced movement therapy – a ‘tough love’ method for upper limb rehab
For extra help with general mobility:
- TENS therapy – electric shock therapy to stimulate motor recovery
- Full body rehab exercises – self-guided rehab exercises
For some necessary fun:
- Meaningful hobbies – promote happiness and freedom
- Dance movement therapy – for sweet, sweet release
As you can see, there are tons of options.
What works for someone you know might not work for you, so experiment until you find your best solution.
And don’t skip the fun! We’re serious when we say it’s necessary.
Shortcuts vs The ‘Hard Way’
The big idea: Easier isn’t always better
After stroke, you’ll find creative ways to adapt your everyday tasks to compensate for your side effects. There are called compensation techniques.
Compensation techniques are necessary for getting things done, like cooking one-handed, because, well, you need to eat. However, compensation techniques can start to hinder your recovery when you have the ability to live without them, but you don’t because it’s easier and faster.
Learn to recognize when your compensation techniques have become convenient techniques, and then ditch them as soon as possible to keep your mind and muscles challenged.
In other words, try doing things the ‘hard way.’
The more you use your affected muscles, the more control your brain gains over them. As you consistently choose the ‘hard way’ of doing things, you’ll get better and better until your deficits are gone.
The Plateau That’s… Not a Plateau
The big idea: The plateau is real, but it does not mean the end of the road.
There is a well-documented pattern of slowed progress after about 3 months of recovery due to the brain exiting a ‘heightened state of plasticity.’ This means that your results will slow down – but they will never stop! Recovery will only stop when you stop.
The best way to get through a slump is to keep your motivation up and keep your regimen varied with different exercises. You can also try new activities that involve your affected muscles, like playing the piano or cooking. Keeping yourself consistently challenged is essential.