The road to recovery after a stroke is often a slow and steady journey that requires determination and physical will. That’s why it might come as a surprise that a lot of rehabilitation can be achieved through non-physical methods. It turns out that techniques that use the mind, can actually train the body. Researchers from Slovenia and France reviewed studies to see what non-physical approaches can counteract functional impairments. They found that there are two ways to train your mind and optimize your stroke rehabilitation.
Two non-physical approaches that can help
Mental imagery and cognitive therapy are two cognitive approaches that are helpful in different situations ranging from post-surgery treatment to the later stages of the aging process. A recent 2018 study examined if these approaches could help stroke patients as well. To find out, reserearchers looked at patients with limited or total inability to perform simple physical exercises such as walking and had them practice these two approaches. Can non-physical therapy really offset physical decline? When these interventions are used in the early stages of decline, they are beneficial. And the combination of mental imagery and cognitive therapy can actually help patients improve their functional ability.
So what exactly are these approaches and how can you use them?
1. Mental imagery
You might be surprised to find out that mental imagery is a technique that many sport players use. They imagine themselves carrying out a task, and it helps them to perform it better. For example, a tennis player might imagine themselves serving with perfect form. Eventually, the body starts to register and adapt to the signals the brain is sending, and the needed movements start to manifest in that player’s serve.
Mental imagery (MI) works for stroke patients in the same way. The patient needs to imagine over and over again that they are performing a certain action. By doing this, the brain is activated in a similar way as to when the physical movement is actually executed. This way of stimulating the brain can encourage functional improvements. That’s what makes MI such a valuable tool for training and rehabilitation of motor performance, specifically as associated with strength, locomotion, or simple daily tasks.
For example, if your therapist wants you to bend your knee, but you find it difficult. Try practicing this movement in your mind. Then try it again. There’s a good chance you will start to be able to bend your knee a little. Be persistent and keep practicing until you recover some of your abilities. Some stroke patients have great difficulty performing mental imagery exercises at first. But, through training, the effectiveness of MI can be improved. MI is a safe way to counteract physical impairments, so it is worth trying.
2. Cognitive therapy
So far the studies that have looked at cognitive therapy for stroke patients include small sample sizes, however, the results of these studies are promising. These studies show that when patients engage in cognitive exercises, they improve their mental function. And because these types of mental exercises encourage new connections in the brain, things like walking and balance improve as well.
What is cognitive therapy exactly? Researchers identified three effective ways that stroke patients can train the mind:
Cognitive stimulation includes activities, where participants train their social and cognitive functions. These activities include group discussions, organized leisure activities, puzzles, games, and targeted therapeutic talks about past experiences and memories.
Cognitive rehabilitation consists of individualized programs that help the patient get back into their daily activities. Each person’s goals are different depending upon their needs. Goals could include things like focusing on the steps to make coffee or memorizing a shopping list.
Cognitive training includes exercises that are designed to improve cognitve function and focus specifically on things like memory, attention, and problem-solving Typically, this type of training involves a specific set of exercises that can be done on paper or on the computer.
If you’re looking for some more tips about congnitive therapy, here’s a list of exercises that can give you some ideas on how to get started.
One of the main advantages of instituting non-physical practices is they’re easy to implement into a preexisting rehab program. They are relatively simple exercises that don’t require any equipment. Using both of these non-physical approaches with regular therapy gives you a greater chance of success in your rehabilitation, in comparison to what is expected when using only one of these types of therapies. And a better rehab outcome ultimately means an improved quality of life.
Try adding mental exercises to your physical program. You can practice them anytime, anywhere, and they are a relatively easy way to enhance your rehabilitation plan. You’ll start to see that mind training is a lot more than just positive thinking!
The lead author of this study is Uros Marusic, Institute for Kinesiology Research, Science and Research Centre Koper, Koper, Slovenia.