After a Stroke: Recovering, Relearning, and Regaining Independence

Each year, more than 700,000 people in the U.S. suffer a stroke, and about one-third of that number lose their lives. Strokes are the fifth-leading cause of death in the nation and the third-leading cause of disability.

Also known as “brain attacks,” strokes occur when the blood to the brain becomes blocked. Brain cells begin to die, and abilities controlled by the affected part of the brain – from movement to memory – are lost.

Although strokes can afflict people at any age, those over age 65 experience nearly three-quarters of all strokes.

Racing against time

How a patient is affected depends on where the stroke occurs in the brain and how much the brain is damaged. The earlier the stroke is identified, the better the patient’s outcome.

The American Stroke Association has offered an effective way to recognize warning signs of a stroke in progress. It’s called the FAST technique:

  • Face drooping
  • Arm weakness
  • Speech difficulty
  • Time to call 9-1-1

Thanks to increased public awareness, more patients are getting help within the first critical hour after a stroke.

“Immediate treatment is critical to minimize damage,” says Tori Owens, chief executive officer at Accel Rehabilitation Hospital of Plano. “After the patient’s medical condition has stabilized, the next step is a stroke rehabilitation program. A focused, comprehensive program – delivered by a stroke rehabilitation team – can help patients relearn lost skills, regain independence, and restore the quality of their lives.”

Certified by the Joint Commission for stroke rehabilitation, Accel has consistently shown strong results for medically complex patients in their improved ability to perform everyday tasks. “Essential to patient progress is motivation,” says Anh Nguyen, MD, the facility’s medical director. “It can make the difference between successful recovery and a lifetime of physical challenges. By understanding what motivates each patient, our multidisciplinary teams provide the inspiration to work harder in achieving individual goals.”

Recovering physically, mentally, and emotionally

Research has found that patients who participate in stroke rehabilitation programs typically perform better than those who don’t participate. “Rehabilitation helps stroke patients relearn skills that are lost when part of the brain is damaged,” Nguyen says. “These skills can include coordinating leg movements to enable walking or mastering the steps involved in any complex activity. Patients learn new ways to complete tasks, such as dressing using one hand or communicating differently if their ability to use language has been impaired.”

Rehabilitation also addresses mental challenges. A new study finds more than half of the individuals who have had a stroke have difficulty with such skills as planning, organizing, and social interaction. Comprehensive stroke treatment plans include speech and occupational therapy to help patients regain lost cognitive, communication, and social abilities.

An estimated 30 percent of stroke patients develop depression, yet as many as two-thirds of those patients do not receive treatment for it. “Psychological evaluation is as important as physical assessment,” Nguyen says. “At Accel, we take a holistic approach to treating stroke patients, addressing their emotional as well as physical needs to reawaken a sense of empowerment – and hope.”

Regaining abilities through advanced therapies and technologies

Promising new therapies are extending the window of treatment following a stroke. New medications are being tested to slow the degeneration of nerve cells deprived of oxygen. Medical devices are being developed to reach stroke-causing blood clots and restore blood flow in minutes. Biological therapies, such as stem cells, are being evaluated to replace stroke-damaged brain cells.

Along with therapy innovations, rehabilitation technologies are helping stroke patients regain their strength and function. For example, robotic technology enables earlier mobility, retraining impaired arms and legs through repetitive motions. Functional electrical stimulation applies electricity to weakened muscles and can restore voluntary motor functions, from walking to reaching. Wireless technology, such as biosensors for the arms, legs, and chest, helps monitor stroke patients’ progress in recovery. Video games and other computer-based therapies can improve mobility in a simulated environment.

“With these advances in therapies and technologies, the future for stroke survivors is brighter and brighter,” Owens says. “Whatever tomorrow may bring, state-of-the-art rehabilitation programs will continue to be key to recovery – helping patients gain back the life they once knew and move forward, one step at a time.”