The good news is that in many instances, a brain can heal itself after a stroke. The brain is a fighter.
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. Without blood, these cells starve and die. This damage triggers different physical and mental changes in stroke victims.
Fortunately, damaged brain cells 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. A strong post-stroke care plan can make a world of difference.
What are the Effects of a Stroke?
Strokes can 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 initially damaged.
- A stroke on the left side of the brain is likely to cause speech problems and a slow, cautious behavioral style
- A stroke on the right side of the brain is more likely to cause vision problems and result in a quick, inquisitive behavioral style
- A stroke in the brain stem is the most severe, causing significant paralysis and speech issues
- Memory loss and motor skill paralysis are common symptoms regardless of where the stroke occurs in the brain
Common physical, mental, and emotional symptoms following a stroke include:
- Muscle weakness
- Trouble walking
- Trouble grasping objects
- Joint pain and rigidity
- Muscle stiffness or spasms
- Numbness or tingling in the arms and legs
- Vision issues
- An altered sense of touch – such as the ability to feel hot and cold
- Chronic pain syndromes resulting from damage to the nervous system
- Trouble coordinating body movements
- Difficulty swallowing and eating
- Problems with perception such as judging distances
- Speech and language problems – as in processing and/or communicating information (also known as Aphasia)
- Cognitive challenges – memory loss, trouble focusing and remembering
- Emotional distress – fear, anxiety, anger, sadness, frustration
- Depression – afflicting 30-50% of stroke survivors and leading to lethargy, sleep disturbances, lowered self-esteem, and withdrawal
Scientific Advancements in Stroke Recovery
Since 1950, stroke survival rates have increased by 70%. This survival rate increase is due to:
- An improved ability to prevent high blood pressure
- 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
A 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, we can do much to help stroke patients recover and heal their brains.
Stroke Recovery – Helping the Brain Heal Itself
There is hope for stroke recovery with 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 to bathe or dress 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 essential—similarly, awareness, sensitivity, and patience in helping a stroke victim recover.
10 Ways Caregivers Can Promote Stroke Recovery
Stroke recovery can be extremely challenging to recover from and cope with. A caregiver can support your older loved one in recovery at home and maximize their long-term independence. Here are a few ways a professional caregiver can help:
- Monitor medications. Caregivers can remind clients to take prescribed medications and monitor their side effects.
- Evaluate the home environment. This includes observations around ifit needs modification to reduce risks and better accommodate the patient.
- Ensure a healthy diet. They can cook meals in line with health guidance like the a Mediterranean diet and make sure seniors get the nutrients they need.
- Encourage exercise. Walks are great, and if walking is an issue, chair exercises can be helpful.
- Be on the lookout for dizziness or imbalance. Falls are very common in stroke patients, but with proper precaution can be avoided.
- Be aware of changes in attitude, behavior, and physical ability. Caregivers can act as a liaison and communicate with family on day-to-day changes in behaviors.
- Encourage social interaction. A stroke victim could become reclusive but having a caregiver around who encourages social activities with close friends and family can reduce the risk of loneliness and isolation.
- Keep their brain active. The best way for a brain to rewire itself after a stroke is to use it. Reading, crossword puzzles, and card games are all great ways to engage.
- Offer musical stimuli. Live music and singing, or listening to musical recordings, can also help trigger cognitive awareness and jump-start the brain.
- Take care of yourself. If you are the primary caregiver, try to maintain balance; you too need to eat well and exercise. Hiring a professional caregiver can give you the time you need to make these activities a priority.
Understanding Aphasia and Communication Post-Stroke
About 25-40% of people who have a stroke will experience aphasia. Aphasia is a language and speech disorder that affects a person’s ability to speak, listen, read and write. While it doesn’t reflect a person’s intelligence, it can cause great frustration and stress for the stroke victim as well as caregivers. It impacts everyone’s ability to communicate effectively.
Aphasia manifests itself in many ways. From difficulty finding the right word, expressing an idea, putting words in the wrong order, and trouble understanding what is said — the brain has short-circuited. Speech and language skills are temporarily scrambled with Aphasia.
It’s important to exercise patience in communicating with those suffering from Aphasia – they need extra time to understand and respond to spoken messages. Aphasia caregivers should consider the following:
- Get the patient’s full attention before you start communicating
- Eliminate competing and distracting background noise (TV, music, other conversations)
- Speak slowly, using simple sentences and words
- Speak to the patient like an adult, not a child (don’t “talk down”)
- Don’t rush them when they respond — give them time to speak and resist the urge to speak for them
- If possible, simplify communication with “yes” and “no” questions
- Communicate with gestures and facial expressions in addition to speech; use drawings and pictures by keeping a tablet or small whiteboard handy
Those with Aphasia are often unaware of their own errors — they may use unfamiliar jargon, so be kind,understanding and don’t criticize. Praise all attempts to communicate and try to ignore speech errors. Try to keep the patient engaged in everyday activities by including them in group discussions and family outings.
Strategies to Prevent Another Stroke
It’s all about keeping the body healthy and fit — it’s never too late. You can help your older loved one make many behavioral changes to prevent another stroke. Each stroke survivor is different, however, so you can tailor programs for every individual. Work with health care professionals – doctors, physical therapists, nutritionists – to ensure that appropriate prevention strategies are in place.
- Exercise (Mild to moderate walking, stretching, and yoga can promote stroke recovery)
- Eat a healthy diet by cutting back on sodium and sugar, red meats, fried foods, and empty calories
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Monitor cholesterol, blood sugar, and blood pressure
- Don’t smoke
- Minimize stress and insomnia by getting a good night’s rest
- Make time for social activities and interaction
- Participate in a stroke support group
Many stroke patients can lead very healthy and fulfilling lives once again. Learning how to cope in the aftermath of this debilitating experience can make a big difference. Be patient, be aware, be strong, and don’t hesitate to seek help.