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Stroke Recovery: What to Expect

When does stroke recovery start?

Fast facts

  1. Nearly 25 percent of strokes occur in someone who has previously had a stroke.
  2. Strokes are considered a leading cause of long-term disability.
  3. Of those who experience a stroke, 40 percent have moderate to severe impairments that require special care.

A stroke occurs when blood clots or broken blood vessels cut off the blood supply to your brain. Every year, more than 795,000 Americans have a stroke. Nearly one in four strokes occur in someone who has had a previous stroke.

Strokes can cause significant impairment in language, cognition, motor, and sensory skills. This is why it’s considered to be a leading cause of serious long-term disability.

Recovering from a stroke can be a lengthy process that requires patience, hard work, and commitment. It may take years to recover.

Recovery can often begin after doctors have stabilized your condition. This includes restoring blood flow to your brain and reducing any pressure in the surrounding area. It also includes reducing any risk factors for a stroke. Because of this, rehabilitation may start during your initial hospital stay. Beginning the recovery process as early as possible can increase your chances of regaining affected 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 and clinical social worker can help you decide which setting will work best for you.

Rehabilitation units

Some hospitals and clinics have rehabilitation units. Other units are in separate facilities that aren’t part of a hospital or clinic. If you’re treated at an inpatient unit, you will have to stay at the facility for several weeks. If you receive outpatient care, you will 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 physical, occupational, and other types of therapy that can help you recover. These therapy programs usually aren’t 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. Although this may be more comfortable and convenient than undergoing rehabilitation outside your home, this option has its limits. You likely won’t be able to do exercises that require specialized equipment, and your insurance company may not cover this type of care.

How does the brain recover after a stroke?

It isn’t fully understood how your brain recovers from a stroke.

There are several possible explanations for how brain rehabilitation works:

  • Your brain may be able to resume functioning by changing the way tasks are performed.
  • If blood flow to the affected area of your brain was restored, some of your brain cells may be damaged instead of destroyed. As a result, these cells will be able to resume functioning over time.
  • One area of your brain may take control of the functions that used to be performed by the affected area.

What skills can I recover?

The goal of rehabilitation is to improve or restore your speech, cognitive, motor, or sensory skills so that you can be as independent as possible.

Speech skills

A stroke can cause a language impairment called aphasia. If you’ve been diagnosed with this condition, you may have trouble speaking in general. Having a hard time finding the right words or difficulty speaking in full sentences are also common.

You may have problems with your speech if the muscles that control speech were damaged. Speech and language therapists can help you learn how to speak coherently and clearly. If the damage is too severe, they can also teach you other ways to communicate.

Cognitive skills

A stroke can impair your thinking and reasoning abilities, lead to poor judgment, and cause memory problems. It can also cause behavioral changes. You may have once been outgoing, but are now withdrawn, or vice versa.

You may also have fewer inhibitions post-stroke and as a result act recklessly. This is because you no longer understand the potential consequences of your actions.

This leads to concerns about safety, so it’s important to work toward recovering these cognitive skills. Occupational therapists and speech and language therapists can help you regain these abilities. They can also help make sure that your home is a safe environment.

Motor skills

Having a stroke can weaken the muscles on one side of your body and impair joint movement. This in turn affects your coordination and makes it difficult for you to walk and perform other physical activities. You may also experience painful muscle spasms.

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

Sensory skills

Having a stroke can affect a part of your body’s ability to feel sensory inputs, such as heat or cold, or pressure. Therapists can work with you to help your body adjust to the change.

Read more: Can acupuncture help you recover from a stroke? »

What other complications can be treated?

Impaired speech, cognitive, or motor skills may cause additional complications. Some complications may be treated. These include:

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 have diarrhea, constipation, or a loss of bowel control. Frequent urination, 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. Sometimes medications can be helpful. In severe cases, your doctor will insert a urinary catheter to remove urine from your body.

Swallowing

A stroke can lead to difficulties swallowing. You may forget to swallow while eating or have nerve damage that makes swallowing difficult. This can cause you to choke, cough food up, 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

Some people develop depression in the aftermath of a stroke. A psychiatrist, psychologist, or other mental health professional can help treat this disorder with therapy and antidepressant medications.

Learn more: What you should know about post-stroke seizures »

Is rehabilitation always successful?

According to the National Stroke Association, 10 percent of people who have a stroke recover almost completely, with 25 percent recovering with minor impairments. Another 40 percent experience moderate to severe impairments that require special care. This means that there is a type of disability that affects your daily function, whether at work or in your personal life. And 10 percent require long-term care in a nursing home or other facility.

Successful stroke recovery depends on a number of factors, including:

  • how much damage the stroke caused
  • how soon recovery is started
  • how high your motivation is and how hard you work toward recovery
  • your age when it happened
  • if you have other medical problems that can affect recovery

The medical experts who help you rehabilitate can also affect how well you recover. The more skilled they are, the better your recovery may 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.

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What You Should Know About Post-Stroke Seizures
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