Because every stroke is different, everyone will have different stroke side effects.
In order to avoid confusion or panic, it’s good to familiarize yourself with the most common stroke side effects so that you know what’s happening if/when they happen.
And as always, if you ever experiencing something out of the ordinary or alarming, it’s important to seek medical attention immediately.
Now, there are a lot of stroke side effects, so we broke them down into 4 parts:
- How your body moves
- How your body functions
- How your body feels
- How your emotions feel
As you can see, there’s a lot of ground to cover. So grab some coffee, make yourself comfortable, and let’s dig in.
Part 1: How Your Body Moves
In a nutshell, neuroplasticity is the mechanism that rewires your brain after stroke. It’s very important for your recovery – it’s how you will improve your stroke deficits and get your life back.
And you can engage more neuroplasticity through repetitive practice. By repeating movements over and over and over, you strengthen the new connections in your brain.
1. Paralysis on One Side of the Body
Muscle paralysis after stroke is known as hemiplegia.
This is caused by your brains inability to control your affected muscles due to brain damage from the stroke.
To reintroduce movement in your body, you need to participate in passive rehab exercises where you assist your affected limbs with your ‘good’ limbs.
The most important thing to emphasize is repetitive practice so that your brain has the stimulation it needs to heal.
2. Weak Muscle Control on One Side of the Body
Muscle weakness after stroke is known as hemiparesis.
It’s important to understand that both hemiparesis and hemiplegia are not problems with your muscles, they are problems with your brain.
That’s where the saying “rehab starts in the brain, not the body” comes from.
The best treatment – by far – for improving muscle weakness is repetitive rehab exercise. The more you repeat movements using your affected muscles, the more your brain starts to relearn how to control those muscles.
3. Poor Muscle Control on Both Sides of the Body
The majority of strokes affect only one part of the brain and therefore affect one side of the body (the opposite side since each half of the brain controls the other half of the body).
However, some strokes (like brain stem strokes) can actually affect both sides of the body.
In these cases, rehabilitation will need to be applied to both sides of the body, not just one.
For example, instead of only working out your left side during rehab, you will need to work out both sides.
4. Balance Issues
When stroke affects your ability to control your muscles, it’s common to develop balance issues.
Rehab exercises will help restore muscle control on your affected side, which will improve your balance overall.
However, your core plays a strong role in your balance, so adding core exercises to your regimen is greatly encouraged.
5. Weak Muscles Turning into Paralyzed Muscles
It’s very important to move your muscles at least a little everyday otherwise you could develop a stroke side effects known as learned nonuse.
Essentially, your brain can completely forget how to use your affected limbs if you completely neglect them. So be sure to move your muscles at least a little every day!! This is where the phrase “use it or lose it” comes from.
Once learned nonuse use developed, it can be reversed. Be aware that it takes lots of patience and practice.
6. Tight, Stiff Muscles
Spasticity is also a very common stroke side effect that is characterized by stiffness in your affected muscles.
It’s very important to understand the difference between temporary and permanent treatment for spasticity.
To temporarily relieve spasticity, you can get Botox injections to loosen the affected muscles. However, the root cause of spasticity is in your brain, not your muscles.
So while Botox may work for a few months, the benefits will subside and you need to get another treatment because you aren’t addressing the root problem.
To permanently treat spasticity, you need to address the root problem, which is your brain’s inability to communicate with those muscles.
And the best way to restore the communication between your brain and your muscles is with repetitive rehab exercise.
The more you exercise your affected muscles, the better your brain will get at controlling the muscles. And once the brain regains enough control, it can relax your muscles permanently!
7. Foot Drop
When you have difficulty lifting the front part of your foot up, you are dealing with a stroke side effect called foot drop.
Again, it’s important to understand the difference between temporary and permanent treatment.
You can get an ankle food orthotic (AFO) that inserts into your shoe and props your foot up. The benefit of this is immediate relief from foot drop and less danger of falling.
However, this doesn’t address the root problem, which is your brain’s ability to control the muscles in your lower leg and foot.
You already know where we’re going with this. The best treatment for foot drop is rehab exercise. It’s the best way to regain control of your foot permanently.
We created some foot drop exercises with pictures that you can try at home.
8. Curled Toes
When your toes curl under, often in a painful manner, it’s the result of spasticity in your feet. This condition is known as curled toes.
You can use AFOs to separate your toes. These AFOs are custom made to form to your feet and separate your toes. However, this doesn’t address your spasticity. It only corrects the symptom.
Rehab exercises for curled toes are the best way to get rid of curled toes for good.
If you suffer from chronic curled toes, then surgery is another available treatment option. During surgery for curled toes, your surgeon snips the tendons on the bottom of your foot that are causing the curled toes.
Be warned that the procedure is irreversible. But it’s worth considering if curled toes are causing you lots of pain and interfering with your quality of life.
9. Difficulty Swallowing
Sometimes stroke impairs your control of the muscles in your throat. If you have difficulty swallowing after stroke, it could be a sign that you have a condition known as dysphagia.
First off, be sure to eat soft foods and avoid eating lying down as it can lead to choking – and we don’t want that!
Secondly, mindful eating is a great treatment for swallowing problems. Slow down and be very careful when you’re eating.
Pour all your attention into your swallowing muscles so that you can retrain your brain how to use those muscles.
There are also medical surgeries and treatments available for dysphagia that you can ask your doctor about. But – again – they don’t treat the real problem. Swallowing exercises are the best way to regain your ability to swallow naturally and for good.
Part 2: How Your Body Functions
10. Problems with Speech
When stroke affects your ability to speak, then you could be suffering from a condition called aphasia, which occurs when the language center of your brain is affected by stroke.
Some survivors experience spontaneous recovery from aphasia, which means that the condition fixes itself over time.
Other survivors need to participate in speech therapy to help regain their ability to speak. When speech therapy doesn’t help, you can also try singing therapy.
This is very effective because even though a survivor may not be able to speak their words, they might still be able to sing their words.
This occurs because language is a left-brain function and singing is a right-brain function. So even though the left-brain language function is damaged, stroke survivors can still access their right-brain singing function!
11. Impaired Vision or Spatial Attention
If you find yourself completely neglecting things and people on the affected side of your body, then you may suffer from one-sided neglect or field cuts.
One-sided neglect is an attention issue, which means that you cannot pay attention to your affected side.
Field cuts are a visual issue, which means that you cannot see on your affected side.
To treat one-sided neglect, try to have people approach you on your affected side. This will help train you to bring attention into your affected side.
Also, try to create a habit of turning to your affected side to practice paying attention there.
The more attention you bring into your affected side consistently, the more you will stimulate that part of your brain and start to heal.
To treat field cuts, you may need to participate in visual therapy to retrain your brain how to see properly again. Eye exercises and vision training can be very beneficial for treating impaired vision.
12. Problems Controlling Your Bladder or Bowels
Stroke can affect your ability to control your bladder and/or bowel movements, which is a condition known as incontinence.
Treatment for incontinence involves a practice called ‘urgency control.’ The next time you feel like you have to pee, do something mentally to take your mind off the urgency to relieve yourself.
For example, count to 100, try to say the alphabet backwards, or take deep breaths to take your mind off your urgency and practice urgency control. The more you practice control, the better you will get at controlling your movements.
And in the meantime, you can use these tips for coping with incontinence.
Seizures occur when there is sudden disorganized electrical activity in the brain, and they can be a very scary experience. Once that about 5% of stroke survivors will experience.
How to handle a seizure:
It’s extremely important to remember not to hold down someone who is having a seizure and not to put anything in their mouth.
Instead, roll them onto their side (if they are on the floor), stay with them until the seizure is over, and pay attention to how long the seizure lasts.
If the seizure lasts for longer than 5 minutes, call 9-1-1 immediately.
Seizures are typically controlled with anti-seizure medication.
In severe cases, there is a device called a vagus nerve stimulator that is surgically attached to your neck to stimulate the nerve with electrical impulses. This stimulation helps prevent future seizures.
Part 3: How Your Body Feels
14. Odd, Mixed Up Sensations
You may have sensory issues after stroke if you’ve experienced any of the following symptoms:
- Inability to feel hot/cold
- Feeling hot/cold at inappropriate times
- Tingling or numbing sensations
- Inability to taste
- Dramatic change in taste
- Pins-and-needles sensation
All of these issues are caused by sensory loss.
If you suffer from sensory loss, then you should participate in sensory re-education.
During sensory re-education, you will participate in exercises such as touching different temperature or textured objects, identifying different temperatures, feeling electrical stimulation, feeling pressure, and many other exercises that engage your senses.
The goal of sensory re-education is to retrain sensory pathways in your brain. All sensory re-education exercises should be repeated at least a few times in order to maximize neuroplasticity and healing in the brain.
15. Post Stroke Pain
Post stroke pain is an unfortunate side effect of stroke – one that many stroke survivors deal with. Of all the stroke side effects, post stroke pain can be the most disruptive to your life.
To treat post stroke pain, it’s important to narrow down what type of pain you’re experiencing, and then treat that type specifically.
Central post stroke pain is of often described as a pin-and-needles sensation accompanied by intense pain. This is a problem with sensation, and some studies have shown that sensory re-education can help with this type of pain.
Pain in your muscles can also be caused by spasticity, which is best treated with rehab exercises. Sometimes it works best to participate in other treatments too, like Botox, to provide relief while you work on your rehab exercises.
Headaches are a common and worrisome stroke side effect. Mild headaches are sometimes considered common and should go away with the passage of time.
But if you experience severe headaches or mild headaches that last for longer than a few hours, seek medical attention immediately because it could be a sign of something going horribly wrong.
If you experience a headache, try drinking lots of water. Sometimes headaches are caused by dehydration since your brain is made of 75% water. Your brain is also trying to heal itself, so your body may need more water now than it did before.
If you are hydrated and still experience headaches, or mild headaches that last for longer than a few hours, then seek medical attention immediately!
17. Tiredness, Sleepiness, and Fatigue
Ah yes, this is one of the most common stroke side effects that can often catch you off guard. Because even if you didn’t need much sleep before stroke, you’re probably going to need A LOT of sleep after stroke.
Because your brain is rapidly trying to heal itself, and it needs lots of rest and relaxation in order to keep healing.
When your body wants sleep, let yourself sleep. If your environment is getting in the way, let friends and family know how important sleep is for your health right now. Hopefully they will accommodate your need for quality sleep.
If you’re experiencing trouble with sleeping, then talk to your doctor. They may recommend some medication to help you get the sleep your brain so desperately needs.
Not into medication? Try some deep breathing or relaxation techniques before bed to help promote sleepiness.
Part 4: How Your Emotions Feel
18. Depression and Anxiety
Unfortunately, depression and anxiety are common stroke side effects that many survivors experience and overcome. There are many causes of depression – from changes to the brain to changes in lifestyle – so there are also many treatment options.
First off, try joining a support group if you can. If there aren’t any local support groups in your area, join our online stroke support group on Facebook.
Second, try to avoid isolation as much as possible, especially if isolation is coming from a place of shame. There are many people around you who are very willing to reach out and support you if you let them know that help is needed.
Lastly, our stroke recovery book Healing & Happiness After Stroke is an excellent tool for boosting self-esteem and happiness during recovery. It was written specifically for stroke survivors dealing with depression.
19. Identity Issues
Many stroke survivors feel like they’re a different person after stroke. In fact, we’ve heard some survivors refer to themselves as ‘after-stroke-me’ and ‘before-stroke-me.’
If you can relate to this, then you may be experiencing identity issues or personality changes after stroke.
If your personality has changed in a way that you don’t like and you want to get back to your old self, then plenty of self-reflection and meditation can help. Identity issues are also addressed in Healing & Happiness After Stroke.
Remember to exercise as much self-compassion as you can during this time. Treat yourself the way you would treat someone else in your exact same shoes: with love, patience, and compassion.
20. Uncontrollable Laughing and/or Crying
If you have experienced random bouts of laughter and/or crying, you may suffer from a condition known as emotional lability (also known as pseudobulbar effect).
Emotional lability can interfere with a stroke survivor’s life when outbursts of emotion are not fitting for the environment, like laughing at a funeral or busting into tears while picking a child up from school.
Emotional lability is most commonly treated with medication.
Other survivors have reported that the condition goes away on its own (i.e. spontaneous recovery) and that accepting the situation instead of resisting it helps, too.
We understand that emotional lability can be very tough to live with, so try to be as compassionate with yourself as you can.
Aaaand that wraps up our overview of stroke side effects. It was a pretty long list, so we hope that it gave you an idea of which stroke side effects to start looking into deeper.
And if you need further explanation of how to overcome the emotional side effects of stroke, Healing & Happiness After Stroke is the perfect place to look.