Upper Limb Exercises for Stroke Rehabilitation

If you suffer a stroke, hand and finger exercises are a likely part of the regimen back to normal health and function. Several heath agencies and publications note that strokes are a leading cause of long-term disability, and hand and finger exercises help open the road back to recovery.

Stroke Effects on Hands
Stroke victims often lose proper function of at least one hand and fingers, experiencing delays in gripping and releasing ability, according to Science Daily. The symptoms arise from the effects of strokes on fine motor control in the brain, which regulates movement through muscles, the skeleton and neurological messages, the American Heart Association reports. Strokes often cause at least temporary paralysis on one side of the body, including hands and fingers. The side of the body affected by strokes depends on the side of the brain in which strokes occur, with left brain strokes affecting the right side of the body and right brain strokes affecting the left side, according to the Brain Foundation.

Significance of Exercise
Hand and finger exercises, movement and physical therapy help stroke victims relearn the use of fine motor skills. In an American Heart Association article, occupational therapist Rondi Blackburn notes a theory that repeated use of the affected side of the body — including hand and fingers — opens up new pathways of communication between the brain and the stroke-affected area. Thus, if you suffer a stroke, medical professionals believe repeated exercises involving affected hands and fingers retrain the brain for fine motor movement.

Exercise Types
The American Heart Association notes several types of exercise to retrain or hone fine motor skills, from a list borrowed from stroke survivors. Timed exercises placing pegs in peg boards and then removing them, shooting marbles into a box multiple times each day, exercising fingers with rubber bands and squeezing rubber balls help restore hand and finger function if you suffer a stroke. Exercises that target range of motion, such as repeatedly pushing affected hands and fingers against a pillow or mattress, also help.

Considering Balance in Exercise
Balancing exercise between affected and non-affected hands, fingers and limbs remains important for stroke victims, according to Science Daily. A treatment known as active-passive bilateral therapy pushes the affected and healthy portions of the brain to find balance in restoring fine motor skills, such as opening and closing hands and moving and gripping with fingers. According to Science Daily, strokes upset balance between the two brain hemispheres. If you suffer a stroke, the therapy means performing a task with the hands or fingers of both the affected and non-affected side of your body at the same time, such as gripping a ball in each hand rather than with just your affected hand.

Long-Term Benefits of Exercise
Studies within the the health-care field suggest exercise benefits stroke survivors beyond the potential restoration of hand and finger use, according to the American Heart Association. The studies suggest that exercise benefits survivors psychologically, builds endurance and may stave off future strokes.

Stretching Arm Exercises After a Stroke
Stretching is especially important for reducing spasticity. “Stretching should be used not as an alternative to medications.Some of these involve using your other arm to produce the forces needed to move the disabled arm. Called passive exercises, these can help prevent muscle shortening and joint stiffness.

General guidelines:

– Move the arm through its full range of motion at least three times a day.
– Gently stretch tighter muscles to a point of slight discomfort.
– Then hold the stretch for at least 60 seconds.

Functional Arm Exercises After a Stroke
Repeatedly using the arm to complete tasks is effective for recovery after a stroke.Repetitive practice is now considered key to stroke rehab, much like practicing scales when learning a musical instrument.

One technique for encouraging use of the affected arm is called constraint-induced movement therapy (CIMT). It involves restricting use of the unaffected hand for several hours a day by putting a mitt on it and performing tasks over and over with the affected arm.

Other research is showing that this kind of repeated “forced use” of the hand and fingers can actually cause the brain to reorganize to help move the hand — the first demonstration of the brain’s plasticity in response to intensive therapy after a stroke.

Unfortunately, few centers offer CIMT for two main reasons, Insurance doesn’t pay for it and high-intensity, short-duration therapy is difficult for many patients.

These are activities that most should be able to do, even with severe stroke damage.

  • Put your fingers around a refrigerator door handle. Or put your fingers around a drawer handle. Open and close the door or drawer.
  • Hold a plastic shopping bag in your affected hand and carry it across the room. Practice putting something light in the bag.
  • Pull laundry out of the dryer and carry it in a small bag.
  • Carry light objects, supporting them against your body with your upper and lower arm.
  • Put a soap dispenser on your hand. Then put it on the table and turn it over more than once.
  • Put a tube of toothpaste in your affected hand. Try to squeeze it while you manipulate the tooth brush with your unaffected hand.
  • Flip a light switch on and off with your affected hand.


It’s important to keep the sensory messages going into the brain to prevent the non-use cycle. The sensory information you get from touching may lead to greater recovery. And, doing activities like these also help you gain independence while you’re recovering. For example, using a bag to carry objects to and from the refrigerator can free your other arm for use with a cane, if needed.

Sources: LiveStrong.com, WebMD

2 thoughts on “Upper Limb Exercises for Stroke Rehabilitation

  1. rhonda pendlebury

    i hadalla an ischaemic stroke40 years ago, while i had 5 years of physiotherapy my r hand is stillcontracted due to shrinkage of the tendons, i still do stretching exercises. I went swimming about a year after i had the stroke and found that i was no longer able to swim, this was devastating for me because i had been a really good swimmer, i had to be taught to swim again still not able to fully use my r side, but enough to allow me to get into the water.


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