According to the American Heart Association, stroke is a leading cause of long-term disability in the United States. Often, rehabilitation is limited to acute-phase and short-term care, which drops off sharply once the patient has stabilized, with progressive functional decline following. Recent evidence finds that exercise offers beneficial effects for regaining lost function well after damage from stroke, according to Science Daily. Specific exercises may help rewire the brain following stroke.
Researchers at Johns Hopkins University had patients whose stroke occurred an average of four years earlier exercise on a treadmill, with assistance as needed, and found improved brain function in vital brain stem areas that control walking. The same study had a group do stretching exercises with the help of a physical therapist, and they found far less brain benefit in this group. Additionally, aerobic exercise improves cardiovascular health, decreasing the chance for future strokes.
Psychologist Edward Taub of the University of Alabama at Birmingham conducts an intensive two-week physical training program called Constraint Induced Movement Therapy. This therapy requires stroke patients to selectively use their affected limbs while excluding the unaffected ones. Results show that significant rewiring, known as cortical reorganization, of damaged areas of the brain occurs with impressive results. Professional musicians with stroke-impaired arms have returned to work after this therapy.
The April 2007 issue of the journal Stroke reported that visualization exercises such as those used by athletes to enhance performance, provide similar benefits to chronic stroke patients in improving arm movement and ability to carry out activities of daily living. At Drake Rehab Center/University of Cincinnati, researchers found up to 30 percent improvement in patients who used mental imagery exercises, even as long as 13 years after a stroke. These patients listened to a CD while mentally rehearsing the same exercises they did in physical therapy. High levels of repetition was found to be a key component to success of the program.
Neuro-optometric rehabilitation, a sub-specialty of optometry, addresses the visual and spatial changes that result from stroke. Cognitive and psychological deficits are seen in stroke victims as well, to which this approach can offer benefits, according to the Padula Institute of Vision. Some of this treatment takes the form of exercises performed at a computer. Research published in the Journal of Neuroscience reports that visual loss has been partially reversed for some stroke patients. This research is especially promising for two reasons: Visual loss is more difficult to repair after stroke than other functions, such as speech and movement, and it points to greater healing capability of the brain than was previously thought.
American Heart Association: Physical Activity and Exercise Recommendations for Stroke Survivors
Science Daily: Treadmill Exercise Retrains Brain And Body Of Stroke Victims
UAB: New Strategies After Stroke—Restraining, Rewiring, Relearning
Reuters: Mental Exercise Improve Stroke Outcomes
Source: The Stroke Foundation