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Tips for stroke recovery

Created date

April 30th, 2019
A woman in a pink t-shirt works with a therapist, exercising her hands.

A woman in a pink t-shirt works with a therapist, exercising her hands.

Statistics on stroke from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that it’s the fifth leading cause of death in the U.S. In addition, stroke is the leading cause of significant long-term disability. Strokes can cause paralysis, seizures, chronic pain, and cognitive dysfunction. It can affect your daily functioning by resulting in problems with speech, swallowing, bowel and bladder functioning, emotional health, problems sleeping, and altered senses. 

Therapy, therapy, and more therapy

Stroke survivors may need to work very hard with multiple therapists, such as a physical therapist (PT), occupational therapist (OT), and a speech-language pathologist (SLP).

One man who can talk about the effort facing stroke survivors is Steve Allen, president and founder of Steve Allen Media, a busy bicoastal public relations company. He suffered a stroke last year at the age of 67.

Allen’s right side was affected, so he received a lot of PT to help him regain mobility, strength, and balance. “The PTs get you moving whether you want to or not,” Allen says. “It can be exhausting.”

PTs also determine which assistive devices would be useful. “I began with a walker, then used a quad cane,” Allen says. “After that, what helped tremendously was an orthotic brace that supported my leg and foot. It prevented my leg from dragging and helped me feel safer and more confident in my ability to get around.”

Allen also received OT. “OTs focus on helping people participate in daily activities that are important to them,” says Carol Stoolmiller, O.T.R./L., C.O.S.-C., corporate director of rehabilitation operations for Erickson Living. “Therapy can include learning ways to perform crucial activities like bathing, dressing, and eating, and OTs also help people participate in hobbies they enjoy.”

For Allen, OT helped him compensate for weakness in his arm and hand. “They taught me techniques that I could apply to everyday life activities,” he says. “I am right-handed, so it’s especially important to me to keep that side strong.”

Some stroke survivors need to work with an SLP. “We can help with forming words and sentences and work with you to improve your volume and voice quality,” says Michelle Vitelli, M.S., C.C.C.-S.L.P., a speech-language pathologist. “Teaching people to chew and swallow safely is another area of our expertise.”

Motivation

Multiple studies have shown that stroke survivors make the majority of their progress in therapies during the first three months, then continue improving up to about six months. Progress continues after that but tends to go slower. “Everyone’s timelines are different,” says Scott Kim, cofounder and CEO of NEOFECT USA, a company that develops medical technologies to help people recover from a stroke. “What took one person a year to accomplish might take you longer, or it may take you only six months.”

Kim and his team found that when stroke survivors get home from therapy, many report they spend the rest of the day sitting on the couch watching television. “Attending therapy sessions but never practicing is akin to expecting to earn a college degree by showing up to class but never doing outside assignments,” Kim adds.

“To stay motivated, focus on your main goal,” Kim says. “For stroke survivors, that goal is usually to achieve as much independence as possible.”

Support and coping

Feeling low is a common aftereffect of stroke, and you have to confront those feelings to stay motivated. “Face-to-face support groups didn’t help me much,” Allen says. “The people tended to take a negative view of things, and it didn’t make me feel any better about my situation.”

“Technology affords stroke survivors numerous resources,” Kim says. “There are many online communities where people can pick up tips for stroke recovery and receive moral support as well.”

Allen found other ways to cope. “On those days when I feel like my body has let me down, I think about how fortunate I am in other areas of my life—I have a great job, a loving family, and good friends I can rely on,” he says.

Allen’s main goal is to eventually walk unaided. “I never forgot what my PTs told me when I asked if I would ever walk without a brace—they said it was up to me and how hard I was willing to work. Now I walk every day and have worked up to one mile.”

“Do I think a miracle will happen?” Allen asks. “Never say never, no matter what transpires. But I will continue to work hard and stay optimistic because I am determined to walk without that brace.”


Stroke prevention: Act F.A.S.T.

Receiving prompt medical care within three hours of a stroke’s onset gives you the best chance for a good outcome. Test for the following signs and call 911:

Face: Ask the person to smile. Does one side of the face droop?

Arms: Ask the person to raise both arms. Does one arm drift downward?

Speech: Ask the person to repeat a simple phrase. Is their speech slurred or strange?

Time: If you observe any of these signs, call 9-1-1 immediately.

Source: National Stroke Association

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