The Importance of Physical and Occupational Therapies After a Stroke

OT and PT therapies after stroke are critical to recovery

A stroke is a medical emergency that occurs when the blood supply to the brain is interrupted or reduced, damaging brain cells. The effects of a stroke can be devastating, often resulting in physical disabilities and limitations. However, with the help of Physical and Occupational Therapies, stroke survivors can significantly improve their quality of life and regain their independence.

Physical and Occupational Therapies play a vital role in the recovery process after a stroke, offering a wide range of benefits that contribute to the overall well-being of the patient. Here are some key reasons why Physical and Occupational Therapies are of utmost importance after a stroke:

  1. Restoring Motor Skills:
    Stroke often leads to muscle weakness, paralysis, abnormal tone/spasticity, and loss of coordination. Physical and Occupational Therapies focus on rehabilitating motor skills by implementing exercises, using adaptive tools, and utilizing specialized techniques — such as functional electrical stimulation and dynamic body weight supportive equipment — to help regain strength and restore function. Through guided movements and intensive exercises of increasing complexity and challenge, therapists help stroke survivors relearn how to walk, use their limbs, perform daily tasks, and return to their leisure activities.
  2. Improving Balance and Coordination:
    Stroke survivors often experience balance and coordination issues, making it difficult for them to maintain stability and perform daily activities. Therapy addresses these balance deficits by incorporating activities that use reactive and anticipatory strategies to maintain or reach upright orientation in different positions. Coordination training typically involves single limb and/or whole body activities so the intended task can be accomplished with improved accuracy and efficiency. The therapists may recommend assistive devices or orthotics to help you maintain your balance and provide joint protection during the recovery process as you relearn or retrain your muscles to walk. By improving balance and coordination, Physical Therapists help reduce the risk of falls and improve overall mobility. In addition, Occupational Therapists evaluate how visual perception deficits can affect balance and attention to their environment in order to return to performing some of their instrumental activities of daily living such as shopping, meal prep, and driving.
  3. Enhancing Range of Motion:
    Strokes can lead to muscle stiffness and limited range of motion, which can greatly impair daily activities. Physical and Occupational Therapists use stretching exercises and neuro re-education techniques to help stroke survivors regain flexibility and use their new range of motion in functional tasks. This not only improves physical function, but also reduces muscle pain and discomfort. If the new improvements in range of motion are not incorporated in daily activities, the stiffness is likely to return. “If you don’t use it, you lose it.”
  4. Addressing Pain Management:
    Many stroke survivors experience pain, including joint pain and muscle aches, due to altered movement patterns and muscle imbalances. Therapists are trained to identify the sources of pain and develop personalized treatment plans to alleviate discomfort. Through techniques such as manual therapy, heat/cold therapy, electrical stimulation, and therapeutic exercises, Physical and Occupational Therapies can effectively manage pain and improve overall comfort.
  5. Improving Cardiovascular Health:
    Stroke survivors often have reduced cardiovascular fitness, which can impact their overall health and functional abilities. Therapy may incorporate cardiovascular exercises, such as walking, cycling, and swimming, to improve cardiovascular endurance and promote a healthy lifestyle. The therapists will teach you how to monitor your heart rate and blood pressure so that you know healthy ranges before, during, and after exercise. They will also teach you alternative ways to monitor the intensity of exercise to keep you safe during your exercise program.

Although strokes often leave folks with life-changing disabilities, it doesn’t have to be the end of life as they know it. A little bit of follow-up with Physical and Occupational Therapies will go a long way toward returning some normalcy to the stroke survivor’s life at home and at work.

Written by: Laura Tsim BSN RN CCRN, Lisa Marlia, DPT, and Michelle Chung, PT, DPT, MS

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