According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are approximately 6 million stroke survivors living in the United States—and nearly 800,000 Americans experience a stroke each year. Strokes are among the leading causes of longterm disability in adults, and their effects often lead to persistent difficulties with the most basic daily tasks.
Researchers have determined that stroke rehabilitation improves functional outcomes and patient quality of life, while reducing the likelihood of recurrence. Yet stroke rehab remains greatly underutilized, with roughly just one in three survivors participating in rehab.
Despite national guidelines that recommend stroke rehab, the public generally lacks awareness about the benefits outpatient rehab provides. Not surprisingly, experts consider increasing overall participation in outpatient stroke rehab to be a national priority.
Rehab at a glance
Post-stroke rehab can take place in a hospital, in an inpatient post-acute care facility, or in an outpatient setting. Rehabilitation approaches depend on the functionality or ability affected by the stroke.
During a stroke, areas in the brain can suffer damage—and functions stored in those areas can become impaired. If, for example, a portion of your brain responsible for controlling motor functions on your right side is damaged, raising your right hand would prove difficult.
Rehab following a stroke is intended to help patients regain— and in some cases, relearn—skills lost from the stroke’s effect on the brain. A stoke’s severity determines the resulting complications as well as the patient’s ability to fully recover. But the key to recovery is neuroplasticity—the brain’s ability to change throughout a person’s lifetime.
Neuroplasticity allows the brain to relearn functions once held in areas damaged by the stroke, and then store those relearned abilities in a different, healthy part of the brain. Learning happens fastest with repetition—so performing rehab exercises over and over trains the brain to reprogram those functions. It’s little wonder that research indicates patients who participate in stroke rehab programming fare better than those who don’t.
Stroke rehab often involves exercises designed to enhance physical activities. For example, motor-skill exercises can help increase muscle strength and improve coordination. Mobility training helps get patients accustomed to using walkers, wheelchairs, or other mobility aids. And range-of-motion therapy helps ease muscle tension.
Other exercises are aimed at improving cognitive functions. Memory, mental processing, and problem-solving skills can be improved through occupational therapy and speech therapy. Rehab might also involve psychological evaluations and counseling to address the emotional effects of a stroke.
For best results in regaining lost abilities and skills, stroke rehab should begin soon after the event—often a day or two after a stroke while the patient is still in the hospital. Rehabilitation can take days, weeks, or months—depending on the stroke’s intensity. Physicians coordinate with physical therapists, occupational therapists, and rehabilitation nurses to plan and monitor each patient’s progress.
Those who have experienced a stroke are at higher risk for recurrence than those who have never had a stroke. Indeed, 30 percent of stroke survivors will experience another stroke in their lifetimes. Stroke rehab can help lessen the chances for recurrence, while helping patients maintain their dignity, regain their independence, and improve the quality of their lives.
If you or someone in your care experiences a stroke, get immediate medical attention by calling 9-1-1. The faster treatment is administered, the greater the chance of survival and full recovery.