– Gramos Pallaska, PT, DPT, FAFS, CEAS
Someone has a stroke every 40 seconds in the United States. The good news is that 80 to 90 percent of strokes are survivable, and many people are able to recover at least some of their functionality with the right support and treatment.
Physical therapy is an essential part of the stroke recovery process, providing both short- and long-term health benefits. Understanding the importance of physical therapy after a stroke may help you or a loved one navigate the road to recovery.
How and Why Stroke Affects Movement
When you have a stroke, the part of your brain that’s responsible for sending information to your muscles (the motor cortex) doesn’t get enough oxygen and becomes impaired. This impairment leads to changes in muscle function and tone. These changes may include:
- Low muscle tone (hypotonia)
- Overly high muscle tone (hypertonia)
- Muscle tightness due to prolonged contraction (spasticity)
- Weakness or paralysis on one side of the body (hemiplegia)
- Deterioration of muscles over time (atrophy)
The changes in muscle function and tone experienced depends on the severity, type and location of the stroke.
Start Physical Therapy Sooner Rather Than Later
Research suggests that the sooner a person can start physical therapy after having a stroke, the sooner they can begin to develop new pathways in the brain. These brain-to-muscle pathways help to compensate for the damaged parts and improve overall function and movement.
In addition to starting physical therapy as soon as possible, it’s also important to set recovery goals and create a customized therapy plan that will help patients achieve these goals. With a thorough evaluation of the extent of rehab needed, as well as factors such as:
- at-home setup
- caregivers’ capabilities and
- notes from collaborating physicians
With these in mind, physical therapists can design a personalized treatment plan to meet a person’s unique needs.
Physical Therapy Benefits Mental Health, Too
The benefits of physical therapy for stroke patients extend far beyond the physical. As people progress in their recovery with the help of physical therapy, they don’t just regain strength, coordination, balance and mobility — they’re also able to see that they have all the tools necessary to start regaining as much of their independence as possible.
Setting Realistic Expectations for Stroke Rehab
Every stroke and stroke patient is different, and the amount of physical therapy required to regain function varies depending on the severity of the stroke. For some people, 8 to 12 weeks of physical therapy will be enough, while others may need therapy for six months or more.
In the short term, physical therapy can help improve mobility and strength in the joints and muscles. Over time, the long-term goal is to create new neurological pathways and communication between the brain and the muscles to improve overall function.
Techniques that physical therapists use to help people after a stroke include:
- Hands-on treatments / manual therapy techniques
- Upper and lower extremity strengthening
- Gait training
- Dynamic and static balance training
Through consistency and repetition, these techniques help the brain create new pathways, improving communication between the brain and the muscles and improving functionality.
For activity of daily living (ADL) re-training, an occupational therapist may be involved. A multidisciplinary team, also including speech and language pathologists, is essential in helping stroke patients regain their quality of life.