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What Pediatric Stroke Survivors Can Expect on the Road to Recovery

Therapist helping baby stroke survivor crawl on a balance beam

Pediatric stroke is a rare condition that affects nearly six thousand children each year. For pediatric stroke survivors, the road to recovery is often difficult. However, because children’s brains are more adaptable, it is possible for pediatric stroke survivors to regain much of their function.

This article will explain the causes and symptoms of pediatric stroke. We’ll also discuss how you can help your child activate their brain’s neuroplasticity to promote a fuller recovery.

Causes and Signs of Pediatric Stroke

Strokes occur when blood supply to the brain is compromised, either through a blood clot in one of the brain’s arteries, or when a cerebral blood vessel bursts. The vast majority of strokes occur in patients over the age of 65. However, in rare cases children can also experience stroke.

Pediatric strokes have a distinct set of causes. Whereas the underlying cause of stroke in adults is typically high blood pressure or high cholesterol, in children the most common causes include: 

  • Sickle cell disease
  • Heart disease
  • Blood clot disorders
  • Weakened blood vessels

The signs of pediatric stroke are similar to adult strokes. Symptoms typically include paralysis on one side of the face and/or arms, slurred speech, and blurred vision.

However, there are some types of pediatric strokes that do not display normal symptoms.

Perinatal and Prenatal Strokes

infant in hospital incubator, doctor's finger is touching the baby's leg to check reflexes

The stroke risk in children is highest during the first several weeks before and after birth. Doctors refer to these strokes as perinatal strokes. Most perinatal strokes are caused by blood clots.

The most frequent symptom of perinatal stroke are recurrent seizures within the first three days after birth. These are usually identified quickly, and treatment often begins right away.

Unfortunately, roughly forty percent of infants with early stroke do not display any initial symptoms. This means that the stroke is only identified as the child grows and developmental delays become visible.

Side Effects of Pediatric Strokes

Pediatric stroke survivors experience many of the same side effects as adult stroke survivors. These side effects include language difficulties such as aphasia and weakness on one side of their body.

Children who survive a stroke also experience unique side effects though, such as:

  • Delays in early milestones such as rolling, sitting, and crawling
  • Favoring one hand and leaving the other hand in a fist
  • Difficulty bringing both hands together during play

If your child displays any of these symptoms, their doctor might refer you to a pediatric neurologist for further testing.

Long-Term Effects of Pediatric Stroke

While some pediatric strokes are mild, children who survive severe strokes do sometimes develop stroke-related disabilities, such as:

  • Cerebral palsy, which causes a child difficulty moving parts of their body
  • Epilepsy
  • Visual and hearing deficits
  • Speech and language difficulties
  • Learning disorders
  • Attention difficulties
  • Behavioral challenges

Fortunately, it is possible to treat many of these problems and lessen their impact on your child’s life.

Treatment for Pediatric Stroke Survivors

doctor talking to pediatric stroke survivor and mother

For both children and adults, activating neuroplasticity is the key to recovering from the effects of stroke.

Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s natural ability to reorganize neurons. This ability allows healthy, undamaged brain areas to take over function from damaged ones. As a result, the person can regain skills they had lost after their stroke.

While neuroplasticity can occur in everyone, pediatric stroke survivors do have some advantages over adults. Specifically, a child’s brain has more synapses (neural connections) than an adult’s brain. This means that children are naturally in a heightened state of neuroplasticity, and as a result, have a greater chance of making a good recovery.

To activate neuroplasticity, your child must engage in massed practice exercise. That’s because when you repeat an action, the brain will begin constructing new neural pathways in response. The more you repeat that action, the more you will reinforce those pathways. With enough practice, the pathways will be fully established, and the action will feel almost second-nature.

Therefore, to promote a fuller recovery from stroke, you should enroll your child in regular therapy. The following are a few of the best therapies for pediatric stroke survivors:

Physical Therapy

physical therapist stretching child's legs on exercise mat

If your child has spasticity after their stroke, have them begin physical therapy as soon as possible. The root cause of muscle weakness and spasticity after a stroke is poor communication between the brain and muscles. Fortunately, exercise can help restore that communication.

A physical therapist will teach your child how to move the right way again. If they survived a severe stroke and cannot move at all, their PT will perform passive range-of-motion exercises with them. Passive exercises also stimulate the brain and activate neuroplasticity. This makes them an excellent option in the beginning of stroke rehab.

Behavioral Therapy

A stroke that occurs in the frontal lobe can lead to issues such as aggression and impulsivity later in life. This will make it harder for your child to control their behavior.

To treat this effect, parents should consider working with a behavioral therapist. A behavioral therapist can help pediatric stroke survivors learn more constructive behavior.

For example, to help keep the child from becoming overwhelmed and acting out, the therapist will create a structured routine that children can easily follow. They will also work on improving self-awareness.

Speech Therapy

speech therapist teaching exercises to pediatric stroke survivor

A stroke often severely impairs a child’s speech and language abilities. This, therefore, makes speech therapy one of the most crucial therapies for pediatric stroke survivors.

Speech therapists deal with all aspects of language and communication problems, from the physical side to the more advanced cognitive side.

Since communication skills grow throughout childhood, it’s crucial to continue with speech therapy even years after their stroke. This will ensure they do not fall too far behind their peers.

Home Therapy

The above therapies are critical for helping your child recover from stroke. However, to see real results, you will need to encourage therapy at home in between sessions.

Recent research shows that it takes about 400 to 600 repetitions to effect changes in the brain. Unfortunately, this number of repetitions is difficult to reach when a person only exercises once or twice a week at therapy.

That’s why home therapy is so vital during stroke recovery. The more the patient can activate their brain’s neuroplasticity, the faster they will make progress.

Child-Friendly Rehab Devices

fitmi hardware for pediatric stroke rehab

Children tend to respond well to therapies that incorporate music and gaming like FitMi home therapy. As one FitMi user enthusiastically wrote:

“We have been using FitMi since January and we can see the difference with my niece!!…By using this system we were able to keep her on track and even GAIN MOVEMENT in her still paralyzed arm! MOVEMENT!!!!! This girl can now lift her hand to her mouth!!!!!!! We will continue to use our FitMi DAILY!!!!!!”

FitMi brings an element of gaming to rehab and challenges patients to beat their high scores. As a result, many children complete their exercises without even realizing they are practicing therapy.

Even if your child can’t use these devices, getting them moving every day through manual therapy will also make a difference. The key is to keep their brain and muscles stimulated and engage their neuroplasticity.  

Understanding Pediatric Stroke

Pediatric strokes are rare but serious conditions. Because a child’s brain is still developing, an early stroke can cause severe deficits later in their life.

At the same time however, their heightened plasticity means they also have a greater chance of making a full recovery. To achieve this, they must be given consistent therapy, both at home and in the clinic.

We hope this article helps you better understand the complications of pediatric stroke and how you can help ensure a successful recovery for your child.

Featured Image: ©iStock/Antonio_Diaz

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Get Inspired with This Stroke Survivor Story

Mom gets better every day!

When my 84-year-old Mom had a stoke on May 2, the right side of her body was rendered useless. In the past six months, she has been blessed with a supportive medical team, therapy team, and family team that has worked together to gain remarkable results.

While she still struggles with her right side, she can walk (with assistance) and is beginning to get her right arm and hand more functional. We invested in the FitMi + MusicGlove + Tablet bundle for her at the beginning of August.

She lights up when we bring it out and enjoys using it for about 20 to 30 minutes at a time. While she still doesn’t have enough strength to perform some of the exercises, she rocks the ones she can do!

Thanks for creating such powerful tools to help those of us caring for stroke patients. What you do really matters!

David M. Holt’s review of FitMi home therapy, 11/09/2020

5 stars

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