November 8, 2019

The Role of Physical Therapy in Stroke Rehabilitation

If you or someone you care for has a stroke, you’ll want to know about the benefits of stroke rehabilitation. A stroke often limits such basic activities as walking or using your arms and hands, so building up post-stroke independence is an involved process that requires a team of dedicated and highly skilled professionals. Much depends on the individual’s condition, but the end goal is to restore a semblance of his or her day-to-day activity. Physical therapists are a major resource in this rehabilitation.

Physical Therapy in a Nutshell

Physical therapists (PTs) diagnose and treat people whose injuries or health problems “limit their ability to move and perform functional activities in their daily lives,” according to the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA). In addition to wellness and prevention efforts, PTs are professionally trained to assess a patient’s limitations and develop treatment plans to help in a variety of ways: reducing pain, restoring a lost skill, or teaching a new method of doing a physical activity. To do this, PTs work with a patient to develop goals and milestones.

Physical Therapy for a Stroke

Along with occupational therapy (OT), which focuses on restoring functions for daily living, physical therapy is the core professional discipline for stroke rehabilitation. Stroke rehabilitation teams include PTs, OTs, speech therapists, nutritionists, nurses, and social workers. Like other health care professionals, physical therapists respect a patient’s right to self-determination and view their relationship with patients as a partnership. Whether it’s building muscle mass, improving range of motion, or increasing endurance, physical therapists employ a wide range of tools and techniques.

According to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), most stroke rehab programs last from three to six months. Rehabilitation should begin immediately following a stroke. This is especially important if the patient is elderly or very ill, as lack of movement makes it harder to exercise, and patients can become so deconditioned that it’s very difficult to start rehab.

Patients will most likely begin stroke rehabilitation in the hospital. From there, they’ll work with a PT either in an outpatient setting or at home. It’s also possible a patient might spend time in a rehab or nursing center for further treatment. Much depends on the patient’s condition when he or she is ready to leave the hospital.

Physical and Long-Term Treatment

The traditional belief, according to the ACSM, is that recovery of most motor function occurs within the first three to six months following a stroke. That belief is challenged by new research that shows “aggressive rehabilitation beyond this time period can result in significant improvement in physical function.”

This dramatically expands both the need for and the role of physical therapists in stroke rehab. Aerobic exercise is becoming a recognized treatment in this effort, and physical therapists use such equipment as stationary bicycles and treadmills. These exercises benefit patients in a variety of ways. The ACSM says treadmill training, for example, might help patients relearn how to walk safely.

Stroke rehabilitation requires a team effort. If you are going through the post-stroke rehab process, then you’re the most vital member of that team. Physical therapists do everything they can to restore a patient’s ability to do what matters most in daily life, but their success largely depends on what the individual patient is looking to accomplish and his or her willingness to participate and work toward recovery.