Research shows that the brain possesses an extraordinary ability to heal itself after stroke. This ability, known as neuroplasticity, is why many stroke survivors go on to make astonishing recoveries.
However, this healing process cannot happen on its own. It requires your help to activate it.
To help you learn how to activate your brain’s natural healing process, this article will cover everything you need to know about neuroplasticity after stroke.
What Is a Stroke?
A stroke occurs when blood supply to the brain is cut off by either a clogged artery (ischemic stroke) or a burst artery (hemorrhagic stroke).
When blood supply is compromised, it deprives the brain cells of oxygen, leading to severe damage. Treatment for stroke includes clot-busting drugs and sometimes surgery, depending on the type and location of the stroke.
However, even if treatment is administered quickly, damage from a stroke can still create secondary stroke effects, such as:
- Muscle weakness or paralysis on one side
- Numbness or tingling
- Speech and language difficulties
- Difficulty swallowing (dysphagia)
- Cognitive problems
Fortunately, your brain can recover these functions to some degree after stroke through the phenomenon of neuroplasticity.
How the Brain Heals Itself After Stroke
Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to reorganize neurons in response to learning or experience.
Your brain is composed of over 100 trillion neural connections. These connections are pathways in your brain that retrieve and store information.
When a stroke occurs, part of the brain becomes damaged and many of these connections are destroyed. That is why many patients struggle with mobility after a stroke, for example; because the neural connections that control movement have been compromised.
However, through neuroplasticity, the brain can form new neural pathways. It can even transfer functions that were once held in damaged parts of the brain to new, healthy areas.
This process allows you to regain movement and other skills after a stroke. But it requires your help.
Activating Neuroplasticity Through Repetition
In the past, scientists believed that the adult brain was static. This meant that, after a certain point in development, the brain could no longer adapt to change.
Today, however, research shows that the brain is always in a flexible state, even in old age. This flexible state is called plasticity.
Research has also demonstrated that repetitive actions engage neuroplasticity and cause changes in the brain. Therefore, a key aspect in stroke recovery is massed practice: exercises with high repetition.
When you perform an action, your brain creates new neural pathways in response to your movement. These pathways make it easier for the brain to store and retrieve information. The more you practice that action, the more you reinforce those neural pathways, and the easier that activity becomes.
This explains why the first time a person tries to play a chord on the guitar, for instance, it feels slow and clunky. But by the hundredth time, it feels second-nature. That’s neuroplasticity in action.
Therefore, to learn how to speak again after a stroke, you will need to practice speech therapy exercises several times a day. The same principle applies if you want to improve your balance, and even your memory.
Whatever ability you want to improve, with enough practice, you will activate neuroplasticity and help your brain heal itself after stroke. Eventually, you should start to regain that function.
Preventing Learned Non-Use After Stroke
While neuroplasticity can help your brain heal itself after stroke, it also has a downside you should watch out for. Therapists call this phenomenon maladaptive plasticity.
Maladaptive plasticity occurs when you consistently repeat an action the wrong way. For example, if you can’t move your right hand to pick up a cup, you might start using your left hand instead.
However, if you continue to only use your left hand, eventually your brain will “forget” how to use your right hand. This leads to a condition known as learned non-use, and it can lead to permanent loss of function.
That’s why therapists recommend you incorporate restorative techniques into your recovery program. Restorative techniques teach you how to regain lost function, and not merely adapt.
Therefore, if your right hand is weak, try to resist the urge to do everything with your left hand. Instead, try to use your right hand as much as you can, even if you have to give it a little assistance with the other hand.
Rewiring the Brain to Restore Abilities After Stroke
By focusing on high repetition during stroke rehabilitation, you can activate neuroplasticity and help your brain heal itself after stroke.
When you activate neuroplasticity through exercise, you help your brain repair lost connections. That not only lets you relearn certain activities, it also prevents neuronal decay and keeps your condition from deteriorating.
Therefore, even if you have suffered a severe stroke, you can still make a functional recovery. Stay disciplined, work hard, and you will see results.