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Therapy options: Stroke recovery treatment and timeline

Patient discussing stroke recovery therapy with health care provider
Stroke recovery therapy comes in different forms and timelines.

The physical and cognitive limitations a person may face after a stroke can vary widely, which makes the recovery timeline variable. Just about any bodily system can be affected and the severity depends on the size and location of the stroke itself.

The most common side effect is weakness and loss of control for movements on one side of the body, but many other concerns exist.

“Patients may suffer from changes in sensation like numbness and tingling, changes in cognition, swallowing, loss of coordination and locking or freezing of movements,” said Ryan Gilbert, physical therapist at Marshfield Clinic Health System. “Additional changes can include loss of awareness, mood or emotional changes, memory or problem solving impairments, increased impulsivity and changes to spoken or written language.”

Rehabilitation therapy and therapists can help patients with the types of conditions they may face following a stroke. Each realm is an important part of helping a patient recover function and independence.

Physical therapy for stroke recovery

For stroke recovery, physical therapy focuses on gross motor function. This therapy will be important for regaining various forms of mobility after a stroke.

“Physical therapy may include helping a patient recover balance, walking independently, improving transfer independence, restoring muscle activation, improving gross motor coordination and increasing safety and navigation around home and community environments,” Gilbert said.

Occupational therapy

Occupational therapy for stroke recovery focuses on return to functional independence in the areas of home, work or recreational activities that are meaningful to the patient.

Initially after a stroke, occupational therapists work to address motor control and hand or arm function in the affected area.

“The goal is to address the person’s ability to safely resume his or her own personal self-care tasks, home tasks and leisure pursuits,” said Anna Rinholen, occupational therapist at Marshfield Clinic Health System.

An occupational therapist is trained to help the patient learn strategies and adaptations to manage any cognitive, perceptual and behavioral changes. As the recovery process progresses, the therapist’s focus will change. Initially they may work to prepare the patient to return home, and then develop ongoing treatment tools as their functional goals change in the patient’s home, work and community settings.

Speech and language pathology

Speech and language pathology services focus on both rehabilitation and developing new ways to complete tasks, across all aspects of cognitive language skills.

“Prioritizing the patient’s meaningful goals, a speech language pathologist will target areas of concern that can include slurred speech, stuttering, changes in voice quality, reading, writing, trouble understanding verbal information, memory, changes to thinking or attention, difficulty planning and problem solving,” said Autumn Schlichting, speech language pathologist at Marshfield Clinic Health System.

Speech language pathologists also study the anatomy and physiology of swallowing. They identify techniques to reduce coughing and choking and improve a patient’s swallowing. Additionally, they can also support changes in social skills that may result from a stroke.

Specialized stroke services

Sometimes patients need more extensive specialized care before they return home. In these cases, they can be referred to inpatient rehabilitation to help patients regain function and decrease deficits that are impairing independence. The benefit of a rehabilitation unit is care from dedicated nursing paired with therapy services and education and support for families. Therapy services include physical, occupational, recreational therapy and speech therapy.

Marshfield Medical Center in Marshfield is a certified Advanced Primary Stroke Center that provides the highest specialized care specifically for stroke patients. Look for rehabilitation centers that have accreditation from the Commission on the Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities (CARF) for their stroke specialty programs. With this care, patients regain function and independence to return home.

RELATED ARTICLE: Stroke certifications attained in Weston, Marshfield​

Stroke recovery timeline is cyclical

Therapy can be a vital part of helping a patient return to previous lifestyles and even various levels of independence after a stroke.  The stroke recovery timeline varies greatly depending on the severity of the stroke and the patient’s individual goals.

“Initially, therapy can last anywhere from weeks to months,” Schlichting said. “However, patients can have functional changes for up to a year or two after their stroke. As they recover, their goals will change and with these changes, it’s important for patients not to hesitate to request a new referral to therapy. Therapeutic stroke recovery is cyclical.”

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