Stroke Recovery

Written by Amanda Delgado
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD

What Is a Stroke?

A stroke is a serious condition that occurs when blood flow to part of your brain is cut off by blood clots or broken blood vessels. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), strokes affect about 795,000 people in the United States each year. (CDC)

Strokes can cause significant impairment in language, cognition, and motor skills. Recovering from a stroke can be a lengthy process that requires patience, hard work, and commitment. In some cases, it can take years to recover.

When Should I Start Recovery?

In most cases, recovery can begin after doctors have treated any life-threatening conditions and taken steps toward preventing further complications and another stroke. This means that rehabilitation may start during your initial hospital stay. Starting the recovery process as early as possible can increase your chances of regaining lost brain and body function.

What Places Offer Stroke Rehabilitation?

The type of facility that you recover in depends on the kinds of problems you’re having and what your insurance covers. Your doctor can help you decide which setting will work best for you.

Rehabilitation Units

Some hospitals and clinics have rehabilitation units. Other units are separate facilities that are not part of a hospital or clinic. Inpatient units have you stay at the facility for several weeks. Outpatient units have you come in for a certain period of time each day to work on rehabilitation.

Skilled Nursing Homes

Some nursing homes offer specialized stroke rehabilitation programs. Others offer certain types of therapy, such as physical and occupational therapy, which can help you recover. These therapy programs are not usually as intense as those offered at hospital rehabilitation units.

Your Home

You may be able to have specialists come to your home to help you recover. This can be more comfortable and convenient than doing rehabilitation outside the home, but this option has its limits. You won’t be able to do exercises that require specialized equipment, and your insurance company may not cover this type of care.

How Does Your Brain Recover from a Stroke?

The ways in which your brain recovers from a stroke aren’t fully understood. Possible explanations for how brain rehabilitation works include:

  • that your brain might manage to resume functioning by changing the way tasks are performed
  • that some of your brain cells might be damaged instead of destroyed and therefore still able to continue functioning with time
  • that one area of your brain might take control of the functions that used to be performed by the damaged area

What Skills Can I Recover?

Speech Skills

Strokes can cause a language impairment called aphasia. People with this condition have trouble speaking in general or have specific problems, such as not using the right words or not speaking in full sentences. Strokes can also prevent you from speaking normally if they damage the muscles that control speech. Speech and language therapists can help you try to speak coherently and clearly. If the damage is too severe, they can teach you other ways to communicate.

Cognitive Skills

Strokes can impair your thinking and reasoning abilities, lead to poor judgment, and cause memory problems. They can also cause behavioral changes. You may have once been outgoing and exuberant, but are now shy and withdrawn, or vice versa. In some cases, stroke survivors are more prone to risk-taking behaviors due to not understanding the consequences of their actions or having fewer inhibitions.

Since this can cause safety concerns, it’s important to work toward recovering these cognitive skills. Occupational therapists and speech and language therapists can help you try to regain these abilities and make sure that your home is a safe environment.

Life Skills

Strokes can make it difficult for you to perform daily activities, such as brushing your teeth and tying your shoes. You may have physical problems doing these activities, or you may have forgotten how to do them. Occupational and physical therapists can help you relearn these basic skills.

Motor Skills

Strokes can weaken the muscles on one side of your body and make it harder for your joints to move. This affects your coordination and makes it difficult for you to walk and perform other physical activities. You may also have painful muscle spasms.

Physical therapists can help you learn how to balance and strengthen your muscles. They can also help you control muscle spasms by teaching you stretching exercises. You may need to use a walking aid, such as a walker, as you relearn motor skills.

What Other Complications Can Be Treated?

Bladder and Bowel Control

Strokes can cause bladder and bowel problems. You may not recognize that you have to go, or you may not be able to get to the bathroom fast enough. You might also have diarrhea, constipation, or a loss of bowel control. Having to urinate often, trouble urinating, and a loss of bladder control can also occur. A bladder or bowel specialist can help treat these problems. You may need to have a commode chair near you throughout the day. In severe cases, your doctor will insert a urinary catheter to remove urine from your body.

Swallowing

Strokes can also lead to problems swallowing. Some people forget to swallow while eating, while others suffer nerve damage that makes it difficult to swallow. This can cause you to choke while eating, cough food up after eating it, or have hiccups. Speech therapists can help you learn to swallow and eat normally again. Dietitians can also help you find nutritious foods that are easier for you to eat.

Depression

Stroke survivors can develop depression in the aftermath of a stroke. A psychiatrist, psychologist, or other mental health professional can help treat this disorder with therapy and anti-depressant medications.

How Successful Is Rehabilitation?

Factors to Consider

The success of stroke recovery varies depending on a number of factors. These include:

  • how much damage the stroke caused
  • how soon recovery is started
  • how high your motivation is and how hard you work toward recovery

The medical experts who help you rehabilitate can also affect how well you recover. The more skilled they are, the better your recovery will be. Your family members and friends can also help improve your outlook by providing encouragement and support. You can increase your chances of successfully recovering by practicing your rehabilitation exercises on a regular basis.

Statistics

The National Stroke Association states that 10 percent of people who have had a stroke make a full recovery, 25 percent have only minor complications, and 40 percent end up needing special care for moderate to severe problems. Only 10 percent require long-term care in a nursing home or other facility. (NSA)

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