Muscle stiffness after stroke is formally known as spasticity, which is the most common stroke side effect.
If you struggle with muscle stiffness after stroke, we will teach you how to reverse the spasticity and loosen up your affected muscles.
You can accomplish this in 6 steps.
Let’s start with the basics.
1. Understand What Causes Muscle Stiffness After Stroke
Normally, your muscles and your brain are in constant communication about how much tension they’re under.
But when stroke damages the brain’s ability to communicate with your muscles, your nervous system has no idea how much tension your muscles are under.
So your spinal cord steps in and tenses up your muscles in order to (falsely) protect them. Because as far as your nervous system is concerned, your affected muscles could be on the verge of tearing.
While your body’s intentions are good, this miscommunication between your nervous system and your muscles leads to spasticity.
The best way to reverse spasticity is to repair the communication between your brain and your muscles.
2. Start Reconnecting Mind to Muscle
The best way to get your muscles to relax and reverse spasticity is to rewire your brain and reconnect mind to muscle.
This is possible through the phenomenon of neuroplasticity, the mechanism that your brain uses to rewire itself and form new neural pathways.
When stroke damages the part of the brain that controls your affected muscles, many of these pathways were destroyed, and neuroplasticity can help you repair them.
Once these “mental highways” in your brain get repaired, your brain can tell your muscles to relaaax, and this time your muscles will get the message.
Now, let’s talk about how to activate neuroplasticity.
3. Activate Neuroplasticity with Repetition
The best thing about neuroplasticity is that it’s simple to activate: with repetition.
Each time you repeatedly do something, like type on the computer, you fire specific neurons in your brain, and the neural pathways get stronger. The more you type on the computer, the stronger these pathways become, and the better you get at typing.
Repetition and neuroplasticity explain how habits become “automatic” – because the mental pathways get reinforced with tons of repetition.
So in order to rewire your brain and reverse spasticity, you need to practice moving your body repeatedly. Specifically, you want to repeat various therapeutic stroke rehab exercises over and over and over.
The more you practice using your affected muscles, the more you reinforces the neural pathways that control those muscles. (If you suffer from severe spasticity or paralysis, you will be creating these pathways from scratch!)
As you start to rewire your brain and reconnect mind to muscle, your brain will finally be able to communicate with your affected muscles and tell them to relax.
This process will be slow, but as you see your muscles slowly start to relax, it will motivate you to keep up with your exercise routine.
4. Temporarily Relax Muscles with Botox (Not a Long-Term Solution!)
Repetitive rehab exercise is the best way to get rid of spasticity long-term.
However, it can be frustrating at times because results are slow and require hard work.
So if you want some temporary relief, try talking to your therapist about Botox injections.
Although Botox is most widely known as a cosmetic procedure, it’s actually very useful for relieving spastic muscles.
Results are temporary though. Treating spasticity with Botox alone will require repeat treatments to keep your muscles relaxed.
However, it can be very useful to use Botox to relax your muscles enough to get some rehab exercise in. Then once the Botox wears off, you will keep some of your gains from the neuroplasticity that you activated.
5. Amplify Your Results with Electrical Stimulation
A great way to see bigger benefit from your rehab exercise is to add some electrical stimulation to your routine.
Electrical stimulation helps activate neuroplasticity even more by sending extra stimulation to your brain.
Studies have shown that combining rehab exercise with electrical stimulation leads to better results.
So if you want to speed your process along, try some at-home e-stim or ask your clinic if they have it available (most do).
You can also check out exercise devices like our FitMi to motivate yourself to accomplish more reps than you ever thought possible.
6. Do Passive Exercise If You Can’t Move Your Hand at All
If you suffer from paralysis in your spastic muscles, don’t worry. There are ways to make this work for you too.
You simply need to take one step back and add some passive exercise to your regimen.
Passive exercise means that you use your non-affected side to assist your affected side. Although you aren’t “doing it yourself,” it will help activate neuroplasticity and reconnect mind to muscle.
With time and good repetition, a little bit of movement will seep into your paralyzed muscles, and your spasticity will start to fade.
7. Try Acupuncture
Acupuncture is an alternative treatment for stroke recovery that actually has clinical evidence behind it’s effectiveness.
When you combine a physical therapy regimen with acupuncture, it can help boost your results and speed up the process of neuroplasticity.
From what we’ve personally heard, acupuncture is a hit-or-miss with stroke patients.
If you’re interested in the therapy though, and you’re not afraid of needles, give it a try if your doctor says it’s okay.
And there you have it! If you follow all 6 of these steps, you will slowly start to reverse your muscle stiffness after stroke.