Mirror, mirror, on the wall… Okay, let’s get that mirror off the wall if we want to help stroke survivors regain muscle strength and control. Mirror therapy for stroke patients can help them improve their walking.
Mirror therapy is a technique that we know works in helping patients regain arm function by having them reflect the movements of their unaffected arm so that it looks like the affected side is moving. Seeing the reflection tricks the brain into thinking the affected side is moving naturally and, therefore, activates the brain. In turn, the brain relearns how to use the muscles.
Now, researchers are looking into whether this method can also help patients who suffer from decreased leg function.
How mirror therapy was tested
Researchers looked at 13 studies that included a total of 572 patients who underwent mirror therapy for 3 to 6 days a week for periods ranging from 2 weeks to 3 months. The patients in these trials held a mirror between their knees so that the unaffected leg reflected and looked like the affected leg. This created the illusion that the affected leg performed the action. This mirror image helps the brain to be aware of the leg’s location and reduces ‘learned’ nonuse. In six of the studies, the patients moved both legs. In seven studies, patients only used the unaffected leg.
Results of mirror therapy
Mirror therapy produced improvements in walking speed, balance, leg function, and passive range of motion of the ankle. Patients saw better results when this therapy was used right after a stroke. This supports the notion that early intervention is crucial for success.
Moving both legs was more effective than only using the unaffected leg. However, there was no evidence to support that mirror therapy improved spasticity or mobility of the ankle joint muscles. Researchers saw a favorable effect of mirror therapy, but this finding did not have much clinical significance because the average walking speed and distance of subjects in seven of the studies improved only a little after treatment.
Nevertheless, mirror therapy appears to be promising for leg function. Further research will determine when and how to approach it most effectively. Check with your therapist to see if this is something for you. Once you learn a few simple exercises, you can even do this at home.
The lead author of this study is Yi Li, Qingchuan Wei, Department of Rehabilitation Medicine, West China Hospital, Sichuan University, Chengdu, People’s Republic of China.