Living longer and getting stronger with acute stroke rehabilitation

Most people who have a stroke live through it. As the National Institutes of Health notes, of the 795,000 people who have a stroke in the United States each year, nearly 83 percent survive.

But strokes are a leading cause of disability in our country. That’s why it’s so important for stroke survivors to get into a rehabilitation program as soon as they’re able.

Riverside Medical Center’s acute stroke rehabilitation program focuses on the first few weeks after the patient’s stroke to maximize their chances of a successful recovery. Patients’ progress during this crucial time can make a huge difference in the quality of their lives after a stroke.

If you think you are having a stroke, call 911 immediately.

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Who is a candidate for acute stroke rehabilitation?

Each of our stroke patients is evaluated to determine whether they’re a good candidate for rehab in our Acute Inpatient Rehabilitation Unit. Every stroke is different, and we have to see if the patient is able to function well enough afterward to benefit from rehab at this stage of recovery.

One of the main criteria we look at is the amount of work the patient is able to do. Patients have to be able to participate in therapy for at least three hours per day as part of the rehab process. If a patient isn’t at that level yet following their stroke, we might recommend that the patient start the process in a dedicated rehabilitation facility. Then we can reassess the patient and bring them back once they’re ready.

Personalized rehabilitation after a stroke

Once the patient is able to leave intensive care following their stroke, we start the rehab process. People often need help retraining their brains and bodies to function properly after a stroke. Testing helps us decide which areas each patient should focus on most during their stay. Most patients need one or more of the following types of therapy:

There’s no “typical” recovery plan for people who have had a stroke. Some patients who have had strokes at a younger age are able to go back to work, so we focus on restoring physical function through our return-to-work program. Other patients need more help with balance, endurance, and getting around their homes with the aid of their caregivers.

We also track each patient’s cognitive functions. If there’s not as much progress as we’d like to see, or maybe more progress in one area than others, that helps guide the rehab team so we can target the patient’s cognitive rehabilitation strategies.

Emotional support is a huge consideration as well. Anxiety and depression are common after someone has had a stroke. We sometimes can treat these issues with medication. Sometimes talk therapy with a psychologist on our unit is effective. In most cases, a combination of both provides the best outcomes.

I also run our stroke support group, which meets monthly in the hospital. The support group serves people who have gone home after surviving a stroke, as well as their caretakers. Joining a support group is a great opportunity to get encouragement from others who have been through a stroke and rehab. Whenever we can, we bring patients from the Acute Inpatient Rehabilitation Unit to group meetings.

Continuing post-stroke rehab at home

Recovery after a stroke is an ongoing process. We see to each patient’s immediate rehab needs during their stay in the hospital, and we also work with patients and their family members to plan for the next stage of post-stroke rehab.

Of course, our goal is to get patients home quickly. Some stroke patients need more intense care, but many can go home after inpatient rehabilitation. Our team, including our social workers, coordinates with them and their caregivers for services they may need at home, such as in-home nursing or rehab care, transportation, or our community’s local Meals on Wheels program.

Stress management after stroke

Many of the people we serve have no prior experience with stroke. The question I get most often from families is whether their loved one will be back to normal after a stroke.

The answer usually is: “Not entirely.” A stroke is likely to change the lives of the patient and their loved ones forever. But we’ll help provide the skills and resources to adjust to their new normal.

One extremely important activity in stroke recovery is stress management. Managing stress is vital for stroke survivors and caretakers. Stress and stroke have a powerful relationship. I talk about this a lot in the stroke support group. Stress management can help patients and family members deal with challenges after a stroke and lower the risk of future strokes.

Some people have a long history of bad choices for dealing with stress, like smoking or heavy drinking. These can increase the risk of a stroke, in addition to their other potential risks. We want to help people find better, healthier ways to relieve stress, including meditation, prayer, yoga — whatever works for them.

The important thing these techniques share is their ability to lower muscle tension, lower blood pressure, and increase mindfulness. They encourage us to take time and think about what’s happening in our lives and what we’re doing, rather than just reacting without considering the consequences.

I won’t sugarcoat it – stroke recovery is a long road, and patients have to be willing to put in the work. But with family support and therapy in our acute stroke rehabilitation program, stroke survivors can continue to be active in their communities.