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Can the Brain Heal Itself After a Stroke?


Identifying care needs and setting expectations following a stroke

The good news is, yes! Research now indicates1 that in many instances, a brain can heal itself after a stroke, even though it has been deprived of blood and may have damaged nerve cells. While physical and mental changes can occur following a stroke, stroke victims can and do regain function; the brain is a fighter and does attempt to heal itself. Cells that are damaged but not beyond repair begin to regenerate; new cells are even created in a process called neurogenesis.

There is hope for recovery from a stroke even in elderly and previously ill individuals. The best outcomes of course involve comprehensive post-stroke care and early rehabilitation – physical, occupational and speech therapies – as well as a thorough understanding of what to expect after a stroke.  

Expectations Following a Stroke

Strokes affect everyone differently depending on the severity of the stroke, which side of the brain was affected, which part of the brain was damaged, and a person’s overall health before the stroke. While the most rapid recovery usually occurs during the first three to four months after a stroke, some stroke survivors continue to recover well into the first and second year post-stroke.

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

  • Muscle weakness on side of the body, trouble walking, grasping objects. (The side of the body that is affected is opposite from the side of the brain that was damaged by the stroke.)
  • Joint pain, rigidity, muscle stiffness or spasms
  • Sense of touch or the ability to feel hot and cold may be altered
  • Pain, numbness or tingling in the arms and legs
  • Trouble coordinating body movements (Apraxia)
  • Difficulty swallowing and eating (Dysphagia)
  • Incontinence
  • Speech and language problems (Aphasia) – processing and/or communicating information can be challenging
  • Memory & other cognitive problems – trouble focusing and remembering
  • Problems associated with perception – judging distance, etc.
  • Vision issues
  • Emotional challenges – fear, anxiety, anger, sadness, frustration, depression

Post-stroke depression afflicts 30-50% of stroke survivors. This depression is typically characterized by lethargy, irritability, sleep disturbances, lowered self-esteem, and withdrawal. Don’t be surprised if your loved one is experiencing these challenges, seek professional guidance and learn how to help them cope with the aftermath of this debilitating experience.

Post-Stroke Care

In addition to physical therapy and other rehab programs, additional assistance during the recovery process can make a big difference in how quickly your loved one recovers. Awareness, sensitivity, and patience are critical components of post-stroke care.

  • Be aware of the medications prescribed to your loved one and their side effects. Make sure they are taking them!
  • Evaluate your home; does it need to be modified to accommodate your loved one to reduce any risks?
  • Ensure that your loved one is eating a healthy diet and getting exercise (walks are great!)
  • Be on the lookout for dizziness or imbalance that can result in falls which are very common in stroke patients.
  • Monitor changes in attitude and behavior as well as physical ability. Post-stroke depression is also very common.
  • Seek support – from family, friends, caregivers, community resources, support groups.
  • Take care of yourself; get others to help and maintain balance in your own life by eating well and getting some fresh air and exercise.

Many stroke patients can in fact lead very healthy and fulfilling lives once again, so don’t be discouraged. The best way for a brain to rewire itself after a stroke is for it to get used – reading, crossword puzzles, card games and other stimuli, including music, singing and social interaction help trigger cognitive awareness and jump start the brain. Don’t let a stroke patient be reclusive and encourage them to re-engage on every possible front.



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About The Author

Cheryl Popp

An accomplished freelance writer and editor, Cheryl is passionate about 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.