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15 Best Physical Therapy Exercises for Brain Injury Recovery

young woman drinking water from the bottle sitting on floor, taking a break from her exercises for brain injury recovery

Exercises for brain injury recovery can help you regain movement and strength, and even improve your cognitive functioning.

After discharge from the hospital, TBI survivors can continue their recovery by practicing simple rehabilitation exercises, like the ones you will find in this article.

Leg Strength Training Exercises for Brain Injury Recovery

The following exercises are effective for increasing your strength and range of motion in your legs after brain injury.

1.  Hip Internal/External Rotation

therapist demonstrating hip external rotation exercises for brain injury recovery

For this brain injury recovery exercise, you will need a towel.

Start in a seated position, and place a towel under your foot to make it easier to move. Then, slide your foot towards your midline.

Next, push your legs outward to the side. Use your hands to assist if necessary. Repeat 10 times, then switch to the other leg. Do 3 sets of 10.

2. Quad Exercises

For these exercises, lay flat on your back on the floor or a bed. Start with your knees bent and on the floor, then straighten the knees to bring your toes up towards the ceiling.

Alternate legs if doing both at once is too difficult. If this is too easy, you can wrap a resistance band around your ankles to make it more challenging. Once again, try to do 3 sets of ten on each leg.  

3. Hip Abduction

therapist demonstrating hip abduction exercises

For this exercise, sit in a chair and hold one leg slightly above the floor. Then, kick your leg outward as if you are kicking a ball out of the way. Again, if you can’t move your leg very far, don’t worry. Just do as much as you can.

Next, kick your leg inward toward your midline. Do 3 sets of 10 on both sides for this exercise also.

Core and Balance Exercises for Brain Injury Rehabilitation

The next set of TBI exercises we will cover are balancing and core strengthening exercises. These are especially helpful for brain injury rehabilitation because they can help improve your coordination and gait.

4. Lateral Trunk Flexion (Oblique Crunches)

therapist leaning to the side demonstrating trunk flexion exercises for brain injury recovery

Start this TBI rehabilitation exercise seated in a chair. Then, dip your right shoulder down towards your right hip.

Next, use your core to pull your trunk back up to center. Then dip your left shoulder down to your left hip, and pull yourself up again.

If you can’t fully complete this exercise yet, you can use your arm to help push you back up. But the goal is to eventually be able to do this without using your arms. Repeat on each side 15 times.

5. Weight Shifts

Weight shifts are great exercises for the early stages of brain rehabilitation.

First, stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and your weight equally distributed on both feet. Then, shift your weight to your right foot and lift your left foot slightly off the ground.

Hold for as long as you can maintain good form, up to 30 seconds. Then return to your starting position and repeat on the other side.

Repeat 5 times on each side. If you have balance problems, you should do this exercise with supervision from a therapist, caregiver, or family member initially.

As your balance improves, you can increase the number of reps you do, and maybe start doing them without supervision.

6. Seated Trunk Extension

Therapist leaning forward in chair demonstrating trunk exercises

Another helpful core exercise for brain injury recovery is seated trunk extension. For this exercise, you will once again be seated in a chair. Then, lean forward as far as you can safely without falling over.

Finally, use your back muscles to push yourself back up. If you have trouble with this, you can use your arms to give yourself a boost. Do 3 sets of 15.

7. Romberg Stance

This is a great balancing exercise for brain injury patients who are a little more advanced in their recovery.

Stand with your feet together and eyes closed. (If this is too challenging at first, you can hold on to the back of a chair with both hands.) Do this for as long as you can, working your way up to 2 minutes.

You may feel your body sway a little when you close your eyes, but that is completely normal. Your brain uses your vision to help keep your body upright and balanced. When vision is removed, your brain has to adjust and use a different sense (called proprioception) to help you balance.

This adjustment is partly why you find yourself swaying when you close your eyes. You are activating a different part of your brain than you normally use, which makes it an excellent exercise for brain injury rehabilitation.

8. Calf Raises

Another great TBI exercise is to hold on to the back of a chair and rise to your tiptoes ten times. To increase difficulty, close your eyes for this one too.

9. Forward Punches

therapist clasping hands and extending arms straight out in front of her body

While seated, clasp your hands together. Then, keeping your hands clasped, punch forward while keeping your arms parallel to the floor. Lean forward as far as you can.

Next, use your back muscles to pull your trunk back to an upright position. You should feel this in your back and core. Repeat 10 times, but if you feel pain in your back, stop immediately.

10. Staggered Stance

Here is another good exercise that brain injury patients can use to improve their balance.

Stand upright with one foot almost, but not completely, in front of the other. Have the heel of one foot lining up with the toe of the other, like you are walking.

Hold for 30-60 seconds, then switch to your other foot. Close your eyes to add difficulty.

11. Core Toe Taps

therapist lying on back lifting legs up to demonstrate an exercise

This is one of the more advanced TBI rehabilitation exercises on this list, so be careful while you do it.

Lie down on your back and bend your knees at a 90-degree angle. Then, cross your left leg over your right knee. Next, bring your left leg back down and tap the floor with your foot. Cross it back over your right knee, and repeat.

Try to do this 10 times on both legs.  

Arm Exercises for Brain Injury Recovery

Finally, these group of brain injury exercises will help you regain use of your arms after TBI:

12. Pushing Movement

therapist pushing water bottle across table

Place a water bottle on the left side of the table within your range of motion. Next, hook your wrist on the outside of the bottle and use your arm to push it straight across the table.

Then, do the same movement to push the bottle back in the opposite direction. Repeat 10 times on both arms.

13. Shoulder Abduction (Deltoids)

For this exercise, you will need a therapy resistance band and a sturdy chair. Then, while holding one end of the band, sit on top of the other end, or place it under one foot depending on the length of your band.

Next, extend your arm (the one holding the band) straight out to your side. If you have trouble holding the band, loop it around your hand to keep your grip.

Finally, while keeping your arm straight out, raise your arm as high as you can above your shoulder. Then with slow and controlled movement, bring it back down.

It’s ok if you can’t raise your arm very high at first, the key is just to practice the movement. You should notice improvements over time.

If you have trouble doing this with a resistance band, you can hold something light like a water bottle instead.

Do 3 sets of 10 exercises on both arms.

14. Bicep Curls

therapist holding water bottle adn demonstrating bicep exercises for brain injury recovery

For this exercise, hold a water bottle in your hand and rest your arm by your side. Then, keep your elbow glued to your side, and flex your bicep to bring the water bottle up to your shoulder.

Finally, bring your arm back down as slowly as you can. When you lower your arm slowly, you are also working your triceps. Repeat 10 times on each side.

15. Shoulder Flexion  

This rehab exercise can help you strengthen your shoulder muscles after brain injury.

Hold a water bottle in your hand and rest your hand in your lap. Then, lift your arm up to a 90-degree angle in front of you until your hand is level with your eye. Make sure your arm is fully extended.

Hold that position for about 5 seconds, then slowly bring your arm back down to your lap. Repeat 10 times on both arms.

Benefits of Physical Therapy Exercises for Brain Injury Recovery

woman smiling and stretching shoulder in front of a lake at sunset

Exercise is good for everyone, but it is especially important for people with TBI.

In fact, research has shown that regular practice of brain injury rehabilitation exercises is a key factor in reversing the effects of traumatic brain injury.

Specifically, here are some of the most useful benefits of TBI exercises:

  1. Exercise increases blood flow to your brain. When you exercise, your cardiovascular functioning improves, which increases blood flow to every part of your body, including your brain. More blood flowing to your brain means more nutrients for your brain to receive, which means your brain can function more efficiently.
  2. Exercise affects neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are chemicals in your brain that transmit messages between neurons. Scientists have found that regular physical exercise actually increases the level of neurotransmitters in your brain. This increase in neurotransmitters helps you process information faster and can even improve your mood and memory!
  3. Exercise activates neuroplasticity. Repetitive exercise is one of the best ways to engage your brain’s neuroplasticity, which refers to the brain’s ability to rewire and repair itself after brain injury.

Therefore, if you want to improve your abilities, try getting into a routine of practicing at least some of these exercises for TBI recovery every day.

Remember, even if they are difficult in the beginning, do not give up. The more you practice, the better you’ll get.

Important note: Often, people with TBI’s have sustained other injuries at the same time (for example, broken bones, muscular strains, wounds, etc.) These injuries often require surgery and/or special precautions be taken in order to heal properly (such as not putting weight through a certain limb or not moving your body in a certain way). If this applies to you, please consult with a doctor or therapist to ensure these exercises are safe for your specific injuries before proceeding.

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Get Inspired with This TBI Recovery Story

Independance, motivation and hope!

“My son Sharat suffered a severe traumatic brain injury 23 years ago leaving him with Aphasia and right sided weakness from his vision,hearing to his limbs. The lockdown in June was a great challenge for him as his caregivers stopped coming, no gym workouts and no outings for a coffee.

Being his mother and primary carer I feared that this was a hotbed for depression. I scoured the net and chanced upon FlintRehab. As there was a trial period it was safe for us to risk getting it across to Auckland.

His OT checked it out and felt that it was ideal. I can honestly second this.

He enjoys working on it and now after three months can do it on his own. His left hand helps his right hand. The FitMi video explains and shows him what to do, it gives him marks and applauds him too!!

He has to use both sides of his brain. The caregivers are OT students who returned enjoy working on it with him.

In three months there motivation built up in him with a drive to use his right hand. There is definitely a slight improvement in his right hand.

This encourages him as well as the caregivers to try harder.His overall mood is upbeat. He enjoys it, so much so, that it doesn’t matter if his caregiver is away.

FitMi is a blessing.”

Sharat’s review of FitMi home therapy, 10/10/2020

5 stars

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