What to Expect from Stroke Rehabilitation

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Stroke rehabilitation begins almost immediately after hospital admission and often continues for at least one to two months afterward— and sometimes longer. At first, the primary goal is to reduce or prevent stroke complications, such as stiffening of the limbs and deep vein thrombosis, by getting the patient out of bed and moving about as soon as possible. As the patient’s condition improves, the focus turns to longer-term goals of restoring mental and physical functioning, coping with any disabilities and returning to an active life.

Although the exact approach to rehabilitation depends on the specific loss of function caused by the stroke, it typically consists of learning strategies to overcome any deficits as well as exercises to improve range of motion in the joints, strengthen weak muscles and restore function to the greatest extent possible. Success in rehabilitation depends on a combination of factors, including the patient’s determination to succeed, setting realistic goals and having the support of family and friends as well as help from a variety of specially trained professionals. These professionals work with patients in the following areas:

  • Occupational therapy Patients learn new ways to perform day-to-day activities (for example, writing, bathing, cooking or job-related tasks) that are affected by their disability.
  • Physical therapy Specialists provide instruction and exercises to help patients regain the ability to walk and move independently and to improve strength, flexibility, balance and overall fitness.
  • Speech/language therapy Speech/language pathologists help patients regain as much of their lost language skills as possible. They also help with swallowing problems, which can involve doing exercises, learning new body positions and making changes in dietary habits to make swallowing easier.
  • Psychological counseling Psychologists and other mental-health professionals can help stroke patients deal with depression and other emotional issues such as anxiety and anger. These professionals can work with the entire family to help each member adjust.
  • Community services Social workers provide information on community-based services to stroke patients and their families. These services include home healthcare, adult day care, meal programs such as Meals on Wheels, and transportation services.

Post-stroke rehabilitation can be a lengthy process that is physically and emotionally demanding. Although disabilities related to a stroke can persist and sometimes be lifelong, people often return to a semblance of normal life, even though some limitations may continue.