Numbness after stroke is a side effect that can cause complete loss of sensation in some areas. It’s often accompanied by other sensory issues such as pins-and-needles sensations, difficulty feeling hot or cold, and even hypersensitivity.
For some patients, post-stroke numbness goes away on its own through the phenomenon of spontaneous recovery. Not all patients experience this though, and rehabilitation methods should be explored.
Here’s everything you need to know about numbness after stroke, including the causes, treatments, and how long recovery may take.
What Causes Numbness After Stroke?
In order to understand numbness after stroke, you must first know what a stroke is.
A stroke occurs when blood flow in the brain becomes obstructed. When brain cells become deprived of oxygen-rich blood, they begin to die and lose their functions.
The area of the brain affected by stroke has a strong implication on the side effects experienced. For example, if the area of the brain that regulates sensation is affected, it may result in impaired sensation like numbness.
When it comes to post-stroke numbness, two areas of the brain deserve a deeper look: the thalamus and occipital lobe.
The thalamus is responsible for interpreting 98% of all sensory input. In a related manner, the occipital lobe differentiates this input from the five senses, including touch.
Even if a stroke does not impact these areas of the brain, numbness may occur. It’s important to seek advice from your doctor or therapist if it happens.
How Long Does Numbness Last After Stroke?
A great question to ask your doctor is, 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 where sensation returns on its own. If this happens, it usually occurs within the first few months of recovery.
However, if sensation does not return on its own, then rehabilitation should be pursued. The amount of time it takes to recover numbness depends on factors unique to every person, including the location of the stroke and intensity of rehabilitation.
Recovery Depends on Intensity of Rehabilitation
The intensity of rehabilitation has a particular impact on recovery from stroke side effects.
Studies have shown that stroke patients recover rapidly during the first 3 months but then remain at this level even at the 5 year mark. Researchers theorize that the intensity of inpatient rehabilitation and lack of post-acute care is to blame for this unfortunate phenomenon.
This does not mean that patients cannot overcome numbness after stroke even if it has been longer than 3 months. Instead, it means that rehabilitation should be pursued well after the 3 month mark in order to maximize recovery.
Treatment Methods for Numbness After a Stroke
Next, you’ll learn different rehabilitation methods you can try at home to recover sensation on your own or with the help of your therapist.
By participating in treatment and rehabilitation for post-stroke numbness, you can maximize your chances of sensation returning to the affected area.
Here are the best treatments and rehabilitation methods for numbness after stroke:
1. Sensory Reeducation Exercises
Post-stroke numbness is different from other types of numbness because the issues originate from the brain, not the local tissue. Therefore, the most popular way of treating numbness is through sensory reeducation.
This rehabilitation methods relies on a process called neuroplasticity: the brain’s natural ability to reorganize and rewire itself and learn new functions.
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 textures (like rough sandpaper, fluffy cotton balls) and feel them without looking. Then, look at the object to provide yourself with feedback.
Although sensory reeducation exercises can be exceptionally difficult in the beginning (especially if there is no sensation at all) 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
Studies have shown that electrical stimulation can help improve sensation after stroke and improve numbness.
This rehabilitation method involves applying electrical impulses to the affected area through the skin. This treatment is often popular with physical therapists.
Acupuncture is an alternative treatment that involves inserting thin needles into specific acupoints on the body. Sometimes electrical stimulation is applied to the needles after insertion, which is called electroacupuncture.
Studies have shown that electroacupuncture helps encourage neuroplasticity in stroke patients with somatosensory deficits (like numbness).
The study noted that patients showed greater response to tactile stimulation (like sensory reeducation exercises) than electroacupuncture, but both enhanced neuroplasticity and recovery from stroke.
4. Mirror Therapy
Mirror therapy is traditionally used to help improve movement in the hand and arm. However, mirror therapy has been shown to improve central post stroke pain, which is a sensory problem.
Although more studies are needed to show a correlation between mirror therapy and numbness, it could be worth a try. This rehabilitation method is safe, non-invasive, and low cost.
Recovering Sensation & Feeling After Stroke
Numbness after stroke occurs when the brain cannot process sensory input from the skin. It’s not caused by issues with the skin; instead, it’s caused by the brain’s inability to process sensory information.
Sometimes feeling returns to the area on its own (spontaneous recovery). Other times, intervention is required to harness the power of neuroplasticity and help retrain to brain to process sensory information.
Some helpful rehabilitation methods include sensory reeducation exercises, electrical stimulation, and even electroacupuncture. Ask your therapist for even more personalized recommendations on how to overcome numbness or other sensory issues.
Most importantly, never give up hope. We wish you the best of luck on the road to recovery.