Numbness after stroke is a side effect that can cause complete loss of sensation or a pins-and-needles sensation.
Some stroke patients may experience spontaneous recovery where the numbness goes away on its own within the first months. Unfortunately, not all patients experience this.
When stroke is severe, sometimes numbness doesn’t go away on its own. Instead, rehabilitation can help potentially relieve some or all of the post-stroke numbness.
Here’s everything you need to know about recovering sensation after stroke, from causes to treatment to timeline.
How Long Does Numbness Last After Stroke?
Before we get started, we’ll answer a popular, burning question: how long does it take for the numbness to wear off after a stroke?
Since every stroke is different, everyone will recover at different rates.
Some stroke patients may experience spontaneous recovery of sensation when numbness goes away on its own within the first few months.
However, if the stroke was severe and/or compromised critical areas of the brain responsible for sensation, then recovery could take many months or even years.
It depends on your unique situation, resources, and work ethic.
Don’t lose hope though. By actively participating in rehabilitation, you can maximize your healing and hopefully shorten the time it takes to recover sensation.
Next, we’ll discuss the causes of post-stroke numbness and the steps you can take to recover.
Causes of Numbness After Stroke
When a stroke occurs, it obstructs the flow of blood to some areas of the brain, resulting in the death of those brain cells and neural networks.
If stroke compromises the neural networks that communicate feeling and sensation between the skin and brain, then it can result in sensory issues after stroke like numbness.
This is especially common after a stroke in the thalamus or occipital lobe.
The thalamus is responsible for interpreting 98% of all sensory input, and the occipital lobe differentiates this input from the five senses, including touch.
It’s important to check with your doctor to make sure that the numbness isn’t caused by nerve damage.
Nerve damage is unlikely because numbness after stroke is often the result of damage to the neural networks that process sensory input.
Fortunately, when the brain cannot process the feeling of touch anymore, there is still hope for recovery.
Treatment for Numbness After Stroke
By participating in treatment and rehabilitation for numbness after stroke, you can shorten the amount of time it takes to recover.
Here are the best ways to improve sensation and numbness after stroke:
1. Sensory Reeducation
Because numbness is an issue with the brain processing sensation, the most popular way of treating numbness is through sensory reeducation.
Sensory reeducation seeks to retrain the brain how to interpret your senses by practicing different exercises that involve touch.
For example, you can gather objects of different texture (like rough sandpaper, fluffy cotton balls, etc.) and feel them without looking.
Or you can ask a caregiver to touch you in the affected area, without you looking, and then guess where they touched you.
Although sensory reeducation exercises can be exceptionally difficult in the beginning – especially if you have zero sensation – the goal is to slowly rewire the brain through repetitive stimulus.
Your physical therapist or occupational therapist is a great person to ask for more information about sensory reeducation.
2. Electrical Stimulation
Another great way to potentially reduce numbness after stroke is with electrical stimulation.
Electrical stimulation is a form of therapy where electrical impulses are delivered through the skin.
Studies have shown that electrical stimulation can help improve sensation after stroke and improve numbness.
This treatment is often popular with physical therapists.
The effects of acupuncture on post-stroke numbness are not well-studied or understood, but some stroke patients see results.
One reason could be placebo effect.
Another reason could be that some acupuncturists apply electrical stimulation to the needles that are inserted into the skin during treatment.
Since electrical stimulation is known to help improve numbness after stroke, it’s possible that acupuncture with electrical stimulation can help too.
4. Mirror Therapy
Mirror therapy is traditionally used to help improve movement by using a tabletop mirror to “trick” the brain into thinking you’re moving your affected hand or limb.
You might be wondering why we’re mentioning it here, where there aren’t any clinical trials on the efficacy of mirror therapy for the treatment of numbness after stroke.
However, mirror therapy has been shown to improve central post stroke pain, which is a sensory problem.
If mirror therapy can help with neuropathic pain, then there’s a chance that it can help with numbness after stroke.
Since this treatment option is safe, non-invasive, and relatively low cost, it could be worth trying.
5. Massed Practice
Finally, one of the final methods you can use to improve numbness after stroke is massed practice.
Massed practice refers to the high repetition of stimulus the brain needs to rewire itself.
The brain likes to be efficient, and it will create and strengthen the neural pathways responsible for tasks that you do frequently.
When you experiment with these treatment options, emphasizing massed practice can help you see results.
Repetition encourages the brain to rewire itself and restore the connection between the skin and the brain.
How to Recover from Numbness After Stroke
Overall, numbness after stroke results when the brain cannot process sensory input from the skin due to the neurological damage from stroke.
To rebuild the neural pathways in the brain that process your sense of touch, you can practice high repetition of sensory reeducation exercises.
By focusing on high repetition, you will provide the stimulation the brain needs to recover your sense of touch after stroke. Good luck!