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Stroke Recovery: Can the Brain Heal Itself?

graphic drawing of a brain

The good news is, yes! Research indicates that in many instances, a brain can heal itself after a stroke.

A stroke is triggered when a blood vessel in the brain gets blocked or bursts. A common analogy is that it’s like a heart attack in the brain. Blood vessels are critical as they carry nutrients and oxygen to the brain. When a stroke causes a blood vessel to block or rupture, the neurons in the brain are deprived of blood. When nerve cells are damaged, they starve and die since blood can’t reach the regions that control bodily functions. This triggers the many physical and mental changes in stroke victims.

However, brain cells that are damaged are not beyond repair. They can regenerate. This process of creating new cells is called neurogenesis. The most rapid recovery usually occurs during the first three to four months after a stroke. However, recovery can continue well into the first and second year as well. Early intervention is key to a successful recovery.

What are the Effects of a Stroke?

Strokes affect everyone differently depending on the severity of the stroke, which side of the brain was damaged and a person’s overall health before the stroke.

  • The side of the body most affected is opposite the side of the brain that was damaged.
  • A stroke in the brain stem is the most serious, causing major paralysis and speech issues.
  • Memory loss and motor skill paralysis are common symptoms regardless of where the stroke occurs in the brain.

A stroke on the left side of the brain is likely to cause:

  • Speech problems
  • A slow, cautious, behavioral style

A stroke on the right side of the brain is more likely to cause:

  • Vision problems
  • A quick, inquisitive behavioral style

Common physical, mental and emotional symptoms following a stroke include:

  • Muscle weakness on one side of the body
  • Trouble walking
  • Trouble grasping objects
  • Joint pain and rigidity
  • Muscle stiffness or spasms
  • Numbness or tingling in the arms and legs
  • Incontinence
  • Vision issues
  • An altered sense of touch (such a the ability to feel hot and cold)
  • Chronic pain syndromes resulting from damage to the nervous system (also called neuropathic pain)
  • Trouble coordinating body movements (also called Apraxia)
  • Difficulty swallowing and eating (also called Dysphagia)
  • Speech and language problems
  • Trouble focusing
  • Trouble remembering
  • Problems with perception (such as judging distances)
  • Emotional distress (such as fear, anxiety, anger, sadness or frustration)
  • Depression afflicts 30-50% of stroke survivors, leading to lethargy, sleep disturbances, lowered self-esteem and withdrawal

cells

Scientific Advancements in Stroke Recovery

Since 1950, stroke survival rates have increased by 70%. This is due to:

  • An improved ability to prevent high blood pressure, which is often the cause of stroke
  • Advancements in the use of imaging to diagnose a stroke
  • A drug called tPA that dissolves clots within the first few hours of a stroke

The research today is focused on healing the brain after a stroke, and improving a patient’s recovery. After a stroke, the brain goes into overdrive to heal itself, which causes swelling. This is an inflammatory response to almost any injury triggered by the immune system. Unfortunately, this swelling can also impair recovery from a traumatic brain injury.

A recent study at the University of Southern California (USC) suggests that a new medication can help reduce post-stroke inflammation of the brain. This promising medication includes a dose of a gene called TRIM9. It can reduce inflammation and swelling in the brain, improving the rate of recovery.

While new research and treatments are encouraging, there is much that can still be done to help a stroke patient recover and heal their brain.

Stroke Recovery – Helping the Brain Heal Itself

older man running

There is hope for recovery from a stroke even in elderly and previously ill individuals. This recovery involves proactive and comprehensive post-stroke care and early rehabilitation efforts.

Rehabilitation helps stroke survivors relearn skills that have been lost or compromised. It teaches survivors new ways of performing tasks based on their disabilities, such as learning how to bathe or get dressed using only one hand. Experts believe that repetition is important. While learning any new skill requires patience and practice, a repetitive rehabilitation program helps the brain heal.

Physical, recreational, and occupational therapy and other rehab programs are important. Similarly, awareness, sensitivity and patience are crucial for helping a stroke victim recover. Here are some caregiver tips for post-stroke care:

  1. Monitor medications. Make sure that prescribed medications are taken and monitor their side effects.
  2. Evaluate the home environment. Does it need any modifications to reduce risks and better accommodate the patient?
  3. Ensure a healthy diet. Consider a Mediterranean diet and avoid processed sugars.
  4. Encourage exercise. Walking can promote stroke recovery. If walking is an issue, arm and leg lifts from a seated position can be helpful.
  5. Be on the lookout for dizziness or imbalance. Falls are very common in stroke patients.
  6. Encourage social interaction. Don’t let a stroke victim be reclusive.
  7. Keep their brain active. The best way for a brain to rewire itself after a stroke is to use it. Encourage brain games like crossword puzzles, board games or card games.
  8. Offer musical stimuli. Live music and singing, or listening to musical recordings can also help trigger cognitive awareness and jump-start the brain.
  9. Seek support. Turn to family, friends, caregivers, community resources, and support groups for help.
  10. Take care of yourself. If you are the primary caregiver, try to maintain balance. You need to monitor your own wellbeing to avoid burnout and continue to provide the best care possible.

Many stroke patients can, in fact, lead very healthy and fulfilling lives again. Learning how to help them cope with the aftermath of this debilitating experience can make a big difference. Be patient, be aware, be strong and don’t hesitate to seek help.

 

Resources

Effects of Stroke

Specific Gene Could Play Major Role in Reducing Brain Swelling After Stroke

How Your Brain Heals After A Stroke

Post-Stroke Rehabilitation Fact Sheet

 

Learn more here: https://homecareassistance.com/stroke-care

About The Author

An accomplished freelance writer and editor, Cheryl is passionate on how to bolster our resilience in old age and reshape the course of decline. Her compassion and understanding for caregiving stems from acting as a caregiver for her mother, who struggled with dementia, and her father, who suffered from Parkinson’s.