When you move your arm, does your shoulder hike up?
This is called a synergistic movement, and during the early stages of stroke recovery, it’s very common.
Synergistic movement happens when you try to make one movement on your affected side, and you end up making multiple movements.
For example, trying to move your affected arm might result in hand and shoulder movements too. While movement is a great sign during stroke recovery, synergistic movement is less than ideal.
If you’re frustrated by this phenomenon, don’t worry. This article will guide you through the cause of synergistic movement and how to get rid of it.
Let’s get started.
Synergistic Movement in the Early Stages of Stroke Recovery
Synergistic movement (also known as synergy) occurs when stroke damages the part of the brain that controls your affected muscles.
When your brain cannot correctly send signals to your affected side, problems like flaccidity (no movement in the muscles) or synergistic movement occur.
Although synergistic movement might seem like a frustrating problem, it’s actually a sign of improvement.
Synergistic Movement as a Surprising Sign of Progress
Synergistic movement is the second stage in the Brunnstrom stages of stroke recovery, following flaccidity.
Flaccidity occurs when there is zero movement in the affected muscles. Synergistic movement occurs after the affected muscles start to “wake up.”
Although synergy can be frustrating, it’s a sign that progress is happening!
Now, let’s talk about how to keep your progress going during rehabilitation after stroke.
Unlinking Synergistic Movement
When your brain is relearning how to control your affected muscles, it’s not a smooth process.
Initially, synergistic movement occurs, but through physical and occupational therapy, you can reprogram your brain to move your muscles correctly – without making other unnecessary movements.
The best way to retrain your brain is with mass practice of therapeutic stroke rehabilitation exercises.
Repetitive practice (i.e. massed practice) is the best treatment for mobility problems after stroke.
Whenever you repeat something, you strengthen the neural pathways in your brain responsible for that task. That’s why habits become second nature – the neural pathways have been strengthened through repetition.
So when you practice arm exercises repetitively, you start to strengthen the neural connections that control your affected arm.
However, it can be difficult to practice these exercises when synergistic movement makes all your other muscles move.
This might cause you to worry about learning bad movements. Next, we’ll discuss why you don’t need to worry about that when you try your best each time you exercise.
How to Get Rid of Synergistic Movement Patterns
Most therapists will agree that it is not ideal to practice rehab exercises incorrectly (i.e. with synergistic movement patterns), as it could reinforce these “bad” movement patterns.
However, when severe spasticity and synergistic movement prevent a stroke patient from moving at all, it’s clear that any type of movement is better than no movement when you’re trying your best and focusing on good form every time.
As long as you are trying your best to use good form every time you exercise, you will continue to get better and better. At this stage of recovery, you will get the most out of your exercises by doing them directly with your therapists – they can use manual therapy techniques to help your limb(s) move with more proper form during each repetition. This will help to reinforce proper movement patterns vs. synergistic patterns.
Summary: Synergistic Movement After Stroke
Synergistic movements happen when you try to move one body part (like your arm) and end up moving multiple parts (like your arm, hand, and shoulder).
You can minimize synergistic movement patterns by practicing therapeutic rehab exercises. Repetition of these movements helps rewire the brain and ‘separate’ your muscle movements.
With consistent practice, you will work towards being able to move your arm and only your arm.