It is very well known that the extent and the time of stroke recovery are variable. However, there is a common misconception in stroke rehabilitation that there is a six-month window for recovery. That’s because, within this time, most healing happens, aided by the body’s natural process. Beyond this time, it is harder to see results and changes. Consequently, most stroke patients do not receive physical therapy or training after this period. But as you know from other Strokemark articles, chronic phase stroke recovery is possible. And here is a remarkable case about a man who regained hand function 23 years after his severe stroke.
A team from Germany, Canada, and the USA reported on a patient that showed widespread reorganization of the brain long after his stroke. When he engaged in a new exercise program, things started to change for the better for him. The new program activated different areas of his brain and different muscles, resulting in regained arm and hand function.
Sometimes improvements are made in unexpected ways
In December 1979, a 15-year-old boy carrying a heavy suitcase in his right hand for the entire length of a trip collapsed 30 seconds after being picked up by his dad at the train station. After being rushed to the hospital, doctors quickly discovered that the boy had brain damage in the front of his brain. His right hand was blue and cold with poor blood circulation to his skin. Hard to believe, but doctors figured out that he had a stroke. The weight of the suitcase limited the blood flow to his brain, causing a stroke that affected the left side of his body. Four months later the boy was able to walk without support and went back to high school. However, his left hand was spastic and non-functional. This remained the case for 23 years.
In 2001, at age 38, on advice related to his obesity, the man took up recreational swimming on a regular basis. One year later, he reported initial movements of his left fingers. His late recovery of finger movements may have been initiated by the use of muscles related to the fingers during swimming. Encouraged by this, he decided to engage in a new treatment program.
He began intensive physiotherapy using a spring-loaded mechanical orthosis (the Saebo glove) that provides resistance and support to the fingers. Within two years, he could hold objects in his left hand and pick up small objects like coins and paperclips.
Check out this video to see the Saebo glove in action
A promising outlook
This man’s case emphasizes the possibility of recovery years after a stroke. Consistent, intense training is the key to continued progress. Although this is only one person’s story, it offers a glimpse of what’s possible. We hope that sharing stories like this one can provide hope and motivation. It is never too late to engage in a new treatment and see improvements.
The lead author of this study was Dr. J. David Spence, Stroke Prevention & Atherosclerosis Research Centre, Robarts Research Institute, Western University, London, ON, Canada.