Strokes affect nearly 800,000 people each year and can cause significant impairment to motor skills, language, cognition, and physical function. However, studies show that earlier and more repetitious rehab can greatly benefit stroke patients by optimizing recovery.
Towards this end, stroke rehabilitation generally starts right in the hospital, as soon as the patient is stable. This means that rehab may begin as early as two days after a stroke has occurred and will be continued in the hospital until the patient is able to be released.
Stroke Rehab Options
Depending on the situation and the severity of the stroke, initial rehabilitation could include:
- Staying in the hospital unit while participating in inpatient therapy
- Transitioning to a long-term care facility that provides rehab therapy and skilled nursing care
- Entering a subacute care unit
- Choosing a rehabilitation facility that offers individualized inpatient or outpatient therapy
- Opting for in-home physical therapy
- Selecting a combination of home therapy and outpatient therapy
With each of these options, the long-term goal of rehabilitation is to help improve the stroke survivor's physical and cognitive functions, to relearn the skills they have lost, and to ultimately improve their overall quality of life so that they can become as independent as possible.
Types of Stroke Rehab
A major component of stroke rehab centers around practicing learned skills. Research has shown that while the nervous system can often adapt and recover some function on its own, repetitive practice is essential for regaining most of the skills lost due to stroke.
There are a number of different methods involved in stroke rehabilitation, depending on the part(s) of the body affected. Each individual approach is aimed at restoring the physical and cognitive functions of the patient.
- Physical Rehab
Physical rehab focuses on strengthening motor skills and involves exercises that are designed to help improve muscle strength and coordination. Often specific therapies are utilized in order to strengthen the stroke-affected parts of the body.
For example, many stroke survivors will go through mobility training to learn to use walking aids (canes, braces, or walkers) and to help increase ankle strength, which will better help support the body. Forced therapy, or constraint-induced therapy, involves restricting the use of an unaffected limb to help stroke survivors practice moving the affected limb. Range-of-motion therapy exercises help lessen muscle tension and help patients regain range of motion.
- Cognitive Therapy
Cognitive therapies are used for communication disorders caused by stroke damage in the brain. This therapy helps patients regain lost abilities in comprehension, speaking, listening, and writing. Evaluations are used to test cognitive skills and emotional adjustment. Counseling with a mental health professional is typically provided.
- Rehab Supported by Technology
Technology is becoming increasingly incorporated into many types of stroke rehabilitation. For example, controlled amounts of electricity can be used to stimulate weakened muscles. The electricity causes those muscles to contract, helping with muscle memory. Other therapies use robotic devices to help assist impaired limbs in performing repetitive motions.
While it can take years to fully recover from the impact of a stroke, rehab can help speed up the recovery process, increasing the chances of regaining more of one's lost brain and body function and thus improving the quality of the rest of their life.