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Arm and Hand Exercises for Stroke Rehab

WebMD Feature

Recovering after a stroke may feel like a daunting task. Among other things, your brain must relearn skills it lost when it was damaged by the stroke.

Recent research, though, shows that the brain is amazingly resilient and capable of adapting after a stroke. This means that recovery is more possible than previously thought.

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Keys to Recognizing a Stroke

Strokes can happen to anyone at any time, regardless of sex or age. Each year, nearly 800,000 people in the U.S. have a stroke, and 130,000 die from one. Of those who survive, more than two-thirds will have some disability. Recognizing stroke symptoms is key to preventing a needless death. “Many patients who have a stroke develop droopiness on one side of the face. And they get weakness in the arm, so in many cases their arm falls to the side and they can’t lift it. If you ask them to smile, it’s...

Read the Keys to Recognizing a Stroke article > >

Recovering use of your arm does bring special challenges, though -- different than those experienced with the leg, says Susan Ryerson PT, ScD, owner of Making Progress, a physical therapy business. Ryerson has specialized in post-stroke recovery for more than 40 years with a special interest in rehab for arms.

"But you don’t have to do anything with the arm because you have the other one to use," Ryerson says. "In the beginning, it's easier to do things with your 'good' arm. So you develop a behavioral pattern of nonuse." But because early muscle activation is critical to good recovery, you should be devoting as much time as possible to getting your arm to work, she says.

What to Expect During Stroke Rehab for Your Arm

Your stroke rehabilitation program involves working with a team to guide you. This usually includes physical and occupational therapists. The rehab team will likely recommend combining a variety of exercises and other techniques to help your arm recover. Two big goals of stroke rehab are to enhance muscle control and reduce spasticity. This is a constant contraction of muscles that can lead to pain and other problems.

Stroke rehabilitation for your hand and arm includes passive movements or exercises that are movements done with the help of a therapist and more active exercises you do with little or no assistance.

Stroke rehabilitation can be tiring. It may also help to be active during times of the day when you have more energy. Set realistic goals.

Stretching Arm Exercises After a Stroke

Stretching is especially important for reducing spasticity. "Stretching should be used not as an alternative to medications, but as a foundation," says Joel Stein, MD, director of the rehabilitation medicine service and physiatrist-in-chief at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital. "Patients that are very meticulous about it can often manage with substantial spasticity."

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