Stroke is the fourth leading cause of death in the United States and it affects more than 800,000 people per year., according to research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. After having a stroke, people have difficulty moving around, speaking or performing regular activities. While medication is helpful in treating the initial cause of the stroke –and sometimes the resulting complications –physiotherapy can be of long-term benefit. According to the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy, high intensity physiotherapy begun within 24 hours after a stroke can lead to better outcomes.
Here’s why this rapid mode of treatment is needed after a stroke and how it helps patients recover faster.
What Happens after a Stroke?
A stroke occurs when blood flow to the brain is compromised due to a blockage in the artery (an ischemic stroke). Strokes are also caused from blood leaking into the brain from a ruptured artery (a hemorrhagic stroke).
Blood carries oxygen to the brain to help all portions of the brain function properly. When anything disrupts the oxygen levels in the brain (causing it to decline to dangerous levels), brain cells die off and portions of the brain cease to work.
This causes a whole host of symptoms, which include:
- Paralysis (usually on the affected side of the body)
- Numbness in the extremities (hands, feet, arms or legs)
- Difficulty speaking and closing the mouth fully
- Difficulty swallowing and drinking
- Difficulty breathing
- Loss of balance and coordination
- Fainting or going unconscious
- A sudden excruciating headache
Some complications are expected after having a stroke. These complications can be permanent, but they usually improve after receiving quick treatment.
Most commonly, a stroke patient will retain an uneven appearance to their face due to the loss of muscle function on one side. They may also have trouble lifting, standing or picking up objects due to muscle weakness. While emergency treatment is aimed at removing the blockage or stopping the bleeding, long-term treatment will be required to prevent and improve complications.
Using Physiotherapy for Treatment
The first stages of post-emergency treatment include healthy eating and quitting health-harming habits, like smoking and excessive drinking. According to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, exercise also helps prevent and control many stroke complications. Exercising after a stroke can be difficult due to the loss of muscle function (from brain damage), loss of balance and the resulting muscle weakness. This is when stroke patients are often referred to physiotherapists.
The brain cannot regenerate any cells lost during the stroke, but physiotherapy can help the brain reorganize existing cells to compensate for the loss (neuroplasticity), according to the Stroke Association. This requires a full physical recovery plan that includes:
- Learning new skills
- Electrical treatment
The amount of time a person and their physiotherapist spends on each part of the recovery plan is determined by the doctor and therapist. They will devise a plan that helps the patient reach new goals and retain normalcy in a safe and controlled environment.
General Treatment Structure
Physical therapy is often conducted in a medical clinic that looks a lot like a mini-gym; with weights, treadmills, balance balls, mats and special medical equipment used to encourage movement. The physiotherapist will work with the patient one-on-one and give instructions on how to do each assigned activity.
As a general guideline, physical therapy is given 45 minutes per day alongside any additional treatments that may be needed. The initial goal is to get the patient moving. Afterwards, the physiotherapist helps the patient regain strength, coordination and function.
It is important to work with, and follow the regime prescribed by a physiotherapist. Independent workouts in a gym may exacerbate existing symptoms and worsen complications. It could also increase the risk of further injury.