Rebuilding and Rehabilitation After a Stroke

For nearly a century, scientists and health care providers thought that the cells of the brain, called neurons, were “hard-wired,” similar to electrical wiring on a circuit board. The common theory was that if damage occurred to those “wires,” say in the aftermath of a stroke, there wasn’t much that could be done to repair the brain.

The problem with the “hard-wired” theory was that the initial pioneers and scientists were studying the brain on individuals who were deceased. This method of thinking was akin to studying a telephone pole and making assumptions about a living tree.

Thankfully, for the benefit of all stroke survivors and their loved ones, the “hard-wired” theory has been debunked. We now know that the brain is in fact “plastic,” meaning that under certain conditions it can remold, reshape and repair after it has been damaged. We call this phenomenon “neuroplasticity” and it brings great news: There is indeed hope for you or your loved one after suffering from a stroke.

[READ: Stroke Rehabilitation: What to Know]

Support System for Stroke Rehab

It takes a village, a team of neurological rehabilitation professionals, to help stroke survivors reach their full recovery potential. This team includes nurses, physical therapists, occupational therapists, speech language pathologists, recreational therapists, vocation specialists and psychologists in addition to the physicians and other providers guiding the patient’s care. Loved ones of the stroke survivor are also absolutely critical in assisting with recovery.

Early treatment from a specialized team can reduce the chances of death and disability after a stroke. Rehabilitation can and should start as early as 24 hours after the stroke. This can take place in any hospital setting, even the intensive care unit. Rehab professionals are trained to perform an initial evaluation to determine how to best assist the stroke survivor. A tailored and individualized plan of care is created to determine the best course of action, including recommending optimal dosage (intensity and frequency of treatment), type of interventions and the best setting to receive therapy for optimal recovery.

In addition to a hospital, rehab professionals can deliver care in a variety of settings including inpatient rehab facilities, skilled nursing facilities, long-term acute care hospitals, transitional living facilities or group homes, outpatient clinics or even in a stroke survivor’s own home.

[READ: How to Prepare for Your First Physical Therapy Session.]

Best Practices for Stroke Recovery

Over the last few decades, scientific studies have guided the practice of rehab professionals to improve the lives of stroke survivors. Some characteristics of treatment are shown to have positive results.

— Higher frequency of treatment (e.g., number of visits or amount of time in therapy).

— Higher intensity of treatment (e.g., therapy that safely increases heart rate and challenges the stroke survivor in meaningful ways).

— Ongoing treatment (e.g., receiving rehab at every stage of the recovery process).

— Repetition of rehabilitation exercises (e.g., continual practice).

— Specialized care (e.g., treatment from rehab professionals who have additional training in stroke care).

— Starting rehab early in the recovery process.

[SEE: Normal Brain vs. Brain With Dementia.]

Rehabilitation Components

Treatment may include exercises and training to improve strength, balance, flexibility, endurance, coordination, fine motor skills, cognition, swallowing and communication skills. Rehab professionals may also determine if specific medical equipment, such as an assistive device or orthotics, may help improve safety, mobility, activities of daily living and overall quality of life. Educating the stroke survivor and their loved ones is a crucial component of treatment and can have a lasting impact.

New technological advances are also assisting professionals and stroke survivors in the recovery process, including body-weight supported treadmill systems, robotic gait assist devices, functional electrical stimulation devices, mechanical devices to assist arm movements, digital technologies, augmented and virtual reality and noninvasive brain stimulation.

Recovery occurs more rapidly in the early weeks after a stroke. However, it’s very important to note that improvement can still occur months or even years after a stroke. Don’t give up! Connect with a rehab professional who can help guide your recovery every step of the way.

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