Strokes are the #1 cause of long-term disability in the United States. But you don’t have to be one of the statistics. If you or a loved one suffers a stroke, apply these strategies to speed up recovery and limit or eliminate long-term damage from the stroke.
1. Take immediate action
Start rehab quickly. Studies suggest that even a one-week delay can worsen outcomes. This goes for the brain, as well. Get your brain active right away, playing games, building puzzles, or having a book read to you. Discuss current events, work on a hobby, anything that truly engages the brain to think, think, think.
Anti-depressants given within days of the stroke can also improve physical and mental outcomes, possibly because the patient feels more engaged and willing to take the necessary steps to retrain the brain and the body.
2. Engage the brain’s neuroplasticity
Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s amazing ability to reorganize neural pathways in response to repetitive actions. The brain can then transfer functions previously controlled by damaged areas to healthier parts of the brain.
Repetition is the key to stimulating neuroplasticity. Do your exercises over and over and over. The constant repetition is what encourages the brain to rewire itself, allowing you to relearn the skills you used to know. Inconsistency will breed poor results and you will become discouraged. The window of opportunity is short, so begin immediately after the stroke and keep it up.
3. Don’t depend on “crutches” or your other side
You may be supplied with braces and other helpful items such as reaching tools to help you cope as you are on your road to recovery. But don’t depend on them too much. Focus on the goal of not needing them one day.
Avoid “learned nonuse,” also called unilateral neglect. Stroke victims often develop habits and workarounds so that they can function without using the affected side of their bodies. This is especially common if the non-dominant side was affected – say, a right-handed person whose left side was weakened by the stroke. It may be easier, and almost subconscious, to transfer actions to the non-affected side, but don’t fall into that trap. Ongoing nonuse will essentially leave the affected side paralyzed, as muscles atrophy and motor and sensory functions are lost.
4. Utilize technology and apps
There are many apps and new technologies that can help you continue practicing between therapy sessions. For instance, there are speech therapy apps, brain-teaser websites, and wearable activity trackers that can measure your walking and movement.
And since people who’ve had one stroke have an elevated risk of having another stroke, ask your doctor about wearing a Neuralert Stroke Detection wristband, which has an algorithm designed to alert medical personnel immediately if stroke symptoms present themselves again, thus speeding up treatment and minimizing damage.
5. Maintain a positive attitude and push past plateaus
Stroke patients often plateau at about the 3-month mark, which unfortunately is also when therapy usually ends. This can lead many stroke patients to believe that they’re at the end of their road to recovery. This is not true! Keep pushing past the plateau, and you should see continued improvement. Occasionally you may feel some regression, but again, this does not signal that you are getting worse. Check with your doctor to make sure it’s not a sign of another condition, and then continue with your activities of using your affected side, exercising, and challenging your body and your mind.
6. Eat right, sleep well
As with recovering from any other illness or injury, good nutrition and sleep are essential. You may need to make changes to your food intake, your stress levels, and your sleep habits. Some of these may even have contributed to your stroke, such as smoking, excessive drinking, junk food, and obesity. It’s time now to address these areas so you avoid a second stroke.
7. Stick to it!
Full recovery is possible. Even if you don’t quite reach 100%, by continuing to try, you’ll be developing good habits of physical and mental health that could help you avoid another stroke and improve your overall health and outlook on life. So never give up, and keep shooting for that 100%.