Study reveals success of new treatment for stroke recovery

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Alternately applying heat and cold to the paralyzed arms and hands of stroke patients helps improve function, according to the results of a new study. This is the first time the technique called thermal stimulation has been tried as a method of stroke rehabilitation, according to Taiwanese researchers.

Thermal stimulation is used in orthopedic rehabilitation and in the treatment of swallowing difficulties when caused by a stroke or other conditions.  As many as 85% of stroke patients suffer impairment of an upper limb, and although rehabilitation techniques currently used can be effective, they are also costly and complicated, according to Fu-Zen Shaw, the lead author of the study report published in Stroke.

For the study, researchers gave half of the stroke patients standard rehabilitation therapy and the other half standard treatment plus thermal stimulation. Patients had five 20- to 30-minute sessions a day for six weeks with alternate applications to a hand and wrist of a cold pack (with a temperature just above freezing) and a hot pack (with a temperature of 167 degrees Fahrenheit).

The thermal stimulation can activate a large brain area helpful in readjusting the motor control circuitry, according to Shaw. The treatment also generates reflexive behavior, which gives stroke patients hope.

The study showed that the thermal stimulation patients had significantly better recovery on four of six measures of function, including changes in sensation, grasping strength and ability to bend the wrist, the researchers said.