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Healthy Tips

The Journey From Stroke to Recovery

Recovering After a Stroke

If there’s one thing true about strokes, it’s that they don’t discriminate. Strokes can happen to anyone, at any time, regardless of age, sex or health status. According to the National Stroke Association, every year, 800,000 people in America have a stroke. It’s the fifth leading cause of death in the U.S. and the number one leading cause of adult disability. This is precisely why it’s so important for everyone to understand the signs of stroke so that it can be treated immediately. The faster a stroke is identified, the better chance a patient has of making a full recovery.

But first, it’s important to understand exactly what a stroke is. A stroke is basically a brain attack.

“During a stroke, blood flow is cut off to particular areas of the brain resulting in loss of oxygen to these areas. Individuals may subsequently experience loss or change of function to the areas affected,” says Ilene Green, MS CCC-SLP, a speech pathologist at Northwestern Medicine Lake Forest Hospital. “This may include muscle weakness or paralysis, sensory loss, and changes in swallowing, speech, language and/or cognition.”

Types of Stroke

There are two kinds of stroke: hemorrhagic and ischemic. Hemorrhagic strokes make up only 15% of strokes, but are responsible for about 40% of all stroke deaths. This type of stroke happens when a brain aneurysm bursts or when a weakened blood vessel leaks. Blood spills into or around the brain and creates swelling and pressure, damaging cells and tissue in the brain.

An ischemic stroke happens when a blood vessel carrying blood to the brain is blocked by a blood clot. This makes it impossible for blood to reach the brain, resulting in stroke.

“Though ischemic and hemorrhagic strokes differ in cause, the goals of rehab following these strokes are the same – to regain as much function as is possible,” Green says.

The Road to Rehabilitation

Stroke rehabilitation includes a mix of many different therapies including physical, occupational and speech therapies. The charge is led by a team of physicians, surgeons, nurses, case managers, therapists, speech pathologists, nutritionists and psychologists who work together to develop a care plan.

A care plan is influenced by factors such as the patient’s current level of function, overall health and the goals of both the patient and the patient’s family. No matter what, the ultimate goal of stroke rehabilitation is to help the patient regain as much brain function as possible.

“Stroke rehab endeavors to help individuals recover and/or compensate for functions lost as the result of a stroke,” Green says. “Therapists help patients perform increasingly more difficult tasks in an effort to retrain the brain and regain function.”

For some patients, rehabilitation includes both inpatient and outpatient therapy, and always includes nutritional and stroke prevention education. The amount of time it takes each patient to recover is unique.

“Some individuals recover function immediately, while others continue to slowly regain function over time,” Green says. “Regardless of length of recovery time, therapy should begin in the acute period following stroke, as soon as the individual is medically stable.”

A Family Affair

It’s also important to remember stroke recovery doesn’t just happen during the first couple months of rehabilitation. Recovery can be a lifelong process and often requires the loving care and support of family and friends.

“Following a stroke, loved ones may need to assume the patient’s responsibilities for a period of time, including finances, grocery shopping, laundry or other household tasks. Loved ones may find themselves in more of a caregiver role following stroke,” Green says. “They may be responsible for getting their loved one to therapy, or reinforcing strategies at home.”

Eighty percent of strokes are preventable. Some risk factors you cannot control, like heredity and sex: females are more likely to experience stroke than males. However, taking small steps toward improving your health and learning the warning signs can go a long way in preventing stroke and improving recovery.

Learn more about stroke recovery and rehabilitation care at the Northwestern Medicine.