Time is brain
Call for emergency medical assistance at the onset of stroke symptoms such as:
- sudden numbness or weakness in the face, arm or leg
- difficulty speaking and understanding words
- sudden blurred vision
- dizziness or loss of balance
- a sudden, severe unexplainable headache
Getting treated within the first few hours of noticing symptoms improves your chances for survival and avoiding permanent disability.
Researchers and therapists continue to study new ways to help patients recover. Although more research is needed before hospitals and rehab facilities across the country adopt these therapies, exciting new findings include the following:
- Virtual reality games may help reorganize brain functions, allowing survivors to regain some walking ability.
- BATRAC (bilateral arm training with rhythmic auditory cueing) can help patients regain use of their arms, alter brain activity and enhance stroke recovery.
- Shock wave therapy, commonly used to break up kidney stones, has been shown to relieve stroke-induced muscle spasm in hands and wrists.
- Botox injections can temporarily relax stiff muscles, making it easier for patients to perform everyday tasks.
- Vision-replacement therapy trains partially damaged nerve cells in the brain to do the work of those damaged by a stroke, helping to improve or regain vision.
Help for stroke survivors
The National Stroke Association at www.stroke.org lists links to Web sites that feature helpful products and services for stroke survivors. Products include exercise devices designed to improve arm and hand function, cookbooks for people with problems swallowing, language therapy software for patients with aphasia and assistive tools for use in the kitchen, bathroom and bedroom.
Fighting stroke with your fork
Antioxidant-rich foods not only help reduce stroke risk, they also speed stroke recovery, according to a study published in the journal Experimental Neurology. Researchers induced strokes in rats fed different diets. Rats that ate blueberries and spinach had strokes half as severe as did rats that ate a regular diet. Rats fed a diet supplemented with spirulina, an algae rich in antioxidants, had strokes 75 percent less severe than rats on the regular diet and achieved better rehab results.
Fighting back after suffering a stroke takes patience and strength. Stroke survivors face challenges ranging from partial paralysis to problems with speaking, understanding speech, chewing, swallowing and performing everyday tasks like getting dressed. Fortunately, doctors and therapists have found that more aggressive, long-term rehabilitation therapies are helping more stroke survivors recover than ever before.
A stroke occurs when blood flow to the brain is blocked. The most common type of stroke is ischemic, caused by a blood clot. Less common, but far more often fatal, is a hemorrhagic stroke, which occurs when a blood vessel in the brain ruptures. People who suffer a stroke are affected in different ways depending on the type of stroke suffered, the area of the brain affected and the extent of brain injury. Someone who has had a stroke may laugh or cry uncontrollably, lose feeling or mobility in the arms or legs, experience vision loss and have problems communicating.
A stroke survivor’s care is coordinated by a team of rehabilitation specialists that usually includes:
- a physical therapist who prompts a partially paralyzed or weakened patient to change positions frequently while lying in bed and engage in range-of-motion exercises to build strength in stroke-impaired limbs. A physical therapist uses exercises to correct balance and improve walking skills. Studies show that intense walking exercises help patients increase gait speed and improve mobility.
- an occupational therapist who helps the patient relearn everyday-living skills such as eating, dressing and using the bathroom. The occupational therapist may recommend braces to improve the patient’s ability to function and adaptive devices and techniques to help him or her retain independence.
- a speech therapist who helps the patient with aphasia—difficulty speaking, finding the correct words or understanding language—through combined language-therapy exercises and so-called constraint-induced aphasia therapy, which includes language games to help the patient progress from using gestures to more complex language skills.
The team may also include a doctor specializing in rehabilitation medicine (a physiatrist) as well as a rehab nurse, a recreational therapist, a psychologist and a social worker. Since stroke survivors may suffer vision loss, blurriness or eyestrain, they may also need to visit an optometrist or ophthalmologist for therapies that can retrain, strengthen or sharpen vision.
Researchers have found that patients who continue with their exercises after leaving the hospital make significant progress and have a greater chance of becoming independent again. What’s more, studies show patients over age 75 who receive stroke rehabilitation continue to improve, suggesting that stroke survivors are seldom too old to benefit from therapy.
If you’ve suffered a stroke, don’t hesitate to reach out for the emotional support and understanding you need. And if a loved one is a stroke survivor, help him or her persevere. Relearning basic skills is physically and emotionally demanding, so patients must remain motivated to work hard to recover.