How long does it take to recover from stroke?
To help answer this popular question, we created a stroke recovery timeline using clinical studies and first-hand stories from other stroke survivors. It covers everything from the first 3 months to years after stroke. Let’s start at the beginning.
Stroke Recovery Timeline Part 1: The Early Stages
Your recovery may not follow this exactly, but it will give you an idea of what the stroke recovery process will be like.
Day 1: The Stroke Is Treated
The causes of stroke are similar to a heart attack, but in the brain. (That’s why stroke is also called a “brain attack.”) A stroke occurs when an artery in the brain becomes either clogged or ruptured, which deprives the brain of oxygen-rich blood. This is a medical emergency and you need to be rushed to the emergency room for treatment.
- When treatment is administered quickly, the outcomes are usually better.
- Understand the types of stroke and symptoms to help others receive swift treatment and save a life!
Day 2: Stroke Rehabilitation Begins at a Startling Pace
Once the stroke has been resolved, rehabilitation begins on day one of the stroke recovery process. Rehabilitation starts quickly to take advantage of the brain’s heightened state of plasticity. You will see the fastest improvements immediately after injury because the brain is rapidly forming new neural connections to recover from the damage.
- During this early stage, rehabilitation methods are mostly passive and emphasize prevention of other complications like contractures, pressure ulcers, and muscle atrophy.
- The sooner rehabilitation begins, the shorter your stroke recovery timeline will be. (Source: Topics in Stroke Rehabilitation)
Week 1: Discharge from the Hospital
The severity and location of the stroke will determine how quickly you get discharged from the hospital. Those who suffered minor strokes are often discharged within the first week. Massive stroke survivors may take longer to get discharged as they require more intensive care.
If stroke side effects are severe and patients cannot survive independently (i.e. they require a ventilator or feeding tube), they may be transferred to an acute care hospital.
Use this infographic on the stroke recovery process to see where your recovery may take you:
Week 2: Half of Patients Experience 50% Recovery
Half of patients experience the fastest recovery in the first two weeks, resulting in 50% recovery at this time, according to Journal of Neurology. This rapid recovery during the first two weeks is why most therapists work with patients aggressively during this time.
- If your medical team is not helping you with rehabilitation during the first 2 weeks, ask for it. Anything done during this time will have a greater impact on recovery.
- Your occupational therapist will focus on helping you relearn the activities of daily living, like getting dressed and toileting.
First 3 Months: The Fastest Recovery Has Occurred
After the first 3 months of stroke recovery, your improvements may slow down. This is called the plateau effect after stroke. The unfortunate news is that most inpatient rehab facilities will discharge you once the plateau has taken effect. The good news is that you can keep recovering with focused effort. While recovery might not occur as fast as before, it can continue with a good physical therapy regimen at home.
- If you are discharged from inpatient rehab, take advantage of any outpatient rehab that your insurance may cover. Time with a therapist is valuable and should be taken advantage of.
- Once you get home, make any necessary modifications that your occupational therapist suggests, like installing grab bars in the shower. This will help prevent falls.
Stroke Recovery Timeline Part 2: Milestones during Rehab at Home
Once you’re discharged and sent home, recovery is in your hands. If you’re proactive about home rehabilitation, you will experience a robust recovery from stroke.
Here’s what your stroke recovery timeline at home might look like:
4 Months: Outpatient Therapy Continues
Once you get discharged from inpatient rehab, you will begin outpatient rehab, where you travel to the clinic for physical and occupational therapy and then go home. During these visits, you will work alongside trained therapists to continue rehabilitating your stroke side effects. At this point in your stroke recovery timeline, developing an effective stroke rehabilitation regimen at home is critical to your success.
- Ask your physical therapist for a sheet of exercises to practice at home, and do them daily in between therapy sessions. This will keep recovery going.
- If you struggle with following a sheet of paper, try out some home exercise technology like Flint Rehab’s FitMi. It turns home therapy into a rewarding game so that you actually stick with it.
6 Months: Gait Improves in Most Stroke Patients
Your manner of walking (also known as your gait) is one of the biggest obstacles that stroke survivors must overcome. About 65-85% of stroke patients will learn to walk independently after 6 months of rehabilitation. Those recovering from massive stroke may take longer to recover chronic gait abnormalities.
- Try strength training, treadmill training, and functional electrical stimulation to improve gait after stroke.
- Combine mental practice (visualizing yourself moving) with physical practice to improve your results.
1 Year: Speech Starts to Return in Massive Stroke Survivors
The stroke recovery timeline after one year greatly varies from patient to patient. Those who sustained minor strokes may be fully recovered after 1 year while massive stroke survivors may be in the middle of rehabilitation. Often, individuals with aphasia have recovered their speech at the 1 year mark after aggressive speech therapy. (Source: Aphasiology Journal)
- Try using speech therapy apps at home to work on language difficulties at home.
- You can also work with a speech-language pathologist who is highly trained in rehabilitation from speech problems after stroke.
2 Years: Extremities Start to Improve
At the 2 year mark, many patients have regained mobility on their affected side, except for the extremities (hands and feet). Extremities are the slowest to improve after stroke, but you can improve them with focused effort.
Patients recovering from massive stroke may still have severe impairments on their affected side, but some movement may have returned at this point, especially with daily rehabilitation.
- Ankle foot orthotics can be used to assist with foot drop, a condition where the patient has difficulty lifting their foot.
- Hand therapy tools like Flint Rehab’s MusicGlove are designed to help improve hand function.
10 Years: Recovery Is Still Possible
Most stroke survivors will achieve independence at the 10-year mark. However, some patients may have neglected rehabilitation during the early stages. When recovery has been neglected, there is still hope, even a decade after stroke.
Plenty of research shows that aging adults can still engage neuroplasticity through rigorous training programs. Although the brain is not in a heightened state of plasticity anymore, recovery is still possible at any stage after stroke.
- If you neglected rehabilitation, just pick up where you left off. When you start to stimulate your brain and put in the work, your brain will respond.
- When you lose motivation, try reading stroke recovery stories to remind you that there’s always hope.
20 Years: Never Give Up Hope
After a couple decades, recovery is still possible as long as patients are engaged in an effective, daily rehabilitation program. Studies have shown that the brain is changing our entire lives, up until our last breath. If the brain is changing all the time, it most certainly can keep recovering after a stroke.
- Focus on massed practice to activate neuroplasticity. The more you practice something, the stronger the new connections in your brain will become.
- Find a motivating stroke rehabilitation program, like FitMi, so that you get into the habit of daily rehabilitation.
To conclude our stroke recovery timeline, we’d like to end with an important reminder:
No matter how long it has been since your stroke, there is always hope for recovery.