More than half of all stroke sufferers experience some form of ongoing disability. These conditions can range from moderate impairments in limb function, to more severe limitations including the inability to walk. These impairments can be evident in the earlier phases of recovery. They can also persist into the chronic phase of stroke. And while rehabilitation commonly focuses on recovery via improved muscle strength, this approach is of limited value for patients who have a disability caused by somatosensory impairment. This state compromises signaling between the brain and the affected limb. About 50–80% of stroke patients deal with this.
Somatosensory stimulation is a technique that uses electrical currents or vibrations to stimulate the nerve pathways. It is a novel therapeutic approach that is showing potential in patients with a chronic disability related to impairments caused by a decreased communication between the brain and leg. A group of researchers in Belgium reviewed 20 studies that investigated the use of this technique. This technique promotes improvements by stimulating the stroke-damaged nerve pathways in patients with chronic stroke. The studies mostly used electrical stimulation, but several also assessed stimulation using vibration, heat, and a hands-on approach.
Promoting better posture
Overall, the researchers found that sensory stimulation had a positive impact on the lives of the trial participants. When stimulation focused on the stroke-affected leg, patients showed immediate improvements in posture. These positive results are thought to be linked to changes in the stroke-affected area of the brain. Stimulation also promotes longer-term improvements in posture.
Further studies need to standardize approaches to treatment and determine whether improvements are sustainable. However, somatosensory stimulation shows signs of being ‘one to watch’ for patients affected by chronic post-stroke disability. The authors conclude that sensory stimulation can improve posture in chronic stroke patients, but more studies are needed to see if it can also enhance the function of the affected leg in assisting in posture.
Depending on the method used, a year of treatment can run up to $14,000. Therefore make sure you discuss your coverage with your insurance provider. Talk with your doctor about somatosensory stimulation. It could offer a simple, pain-free way to supplement your existing rehabilitation program.
The lead author of this study is Jonas Schröder, Department of Rehabilitation Sciences and Physiotherapy, University of Antwerp, Antwerp, Belgium.