Mind games the way to recover from stroke

James M. Berklan
James M. Berklan

Do we need another reminder that a positive attitude or strong mind helps healing? We do. This time, it's with regard to stroke survivors who can't move body parts.

I had a father who couldn't move most of the left side of his body for the last 12 years of his life, so I identify strongly with some of the latest stroke research.

Time after time, I watched him cradle his limp left hand in his right and stare at it, as if trying to will it to move. It's not exactly what Georgia State University researchers have struck on, but it's close enough to have brought back strong memories of my brave, optimistic father, gone now for nearly 14 years.

It turns out that the path to physical rehabilitation can be paved with motor imagery. That is, if a stroke survivor can't move a limb, visualizing its movement can be a fine first step toward making it actually happen. One researcher calls it a "primer."

Thus, a combination of mental practice and physical therapy can become an effective treatment regimen. This is where caregivers and frontline rehab providers prove so vital. Their encouragement and prodding can work wonders.

What this means for some stroke survivors is realizing that mentally rehearsing motor actions without any real discernible movement is OK. Using mental imagery alone didn't evoke the changes researchers observed, but they said sensation and motor function scores were significantly higher when stroke survivors underwent the combined mental practice and physical therapy.

The researchers' findings were published March 30 in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. They might not have set off a light bulb for therapists and caregivers around the country, but maybe they should have.

As the son of a second parent who also had a stroke, I can attest to even more. I saw firsthand how my post-stroke mother completed tasks, or at least tried them — as long as a professional caregiver suggested them. If mere family members suggested a mental or visual exercise, well, good luck with that — especially if it has something to do with mentally pushing oneself to retain or regain function.

Some 17 healthy, young individuals served as the constant, to be compared against 13 stroke survivors, in the Georgia State analysis. The latter were broken into two groups, each receiving 60 total hours of rehabilitation.

"One of these treatments is really intense physical therapy, but some people can't move at all,” observed researcher Andrew Butler, interim dean in the Byrdine F. Lewis School of Nursing and Health Professions and associate faculty in the Neuroscience Institute at Georgia State.

His summary paints a clear picture for what post-stroke patients, and their caregivers, should be focused on.

“We found in our data that if they just think about moving, it keeps the neurons active right around the area that died in the brain. We used mental practice as a primer for physical training. As people improve and move along in their rehabilitation, they can progress from mental practice to physical practice and this can result in behavioral change, meaning they could move their arms better."

A great example of the benefits of positive thinking — some would say mind over matter. It truly does matter for thousands of individuals and their caregivers every year.

James M. Berklan is McKnight's Editor. Follow him @JimBerklan.


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Daily Editors' Notes

McKnight's Daily Editors' Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news and issues. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor, Editor James M. Berklan, Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman and Staff Writer Emily Mongan.