Recovering from the effects of a stroke can take long, hard weeks of therapy at home once a stroke patient leaves the hospital. OTs can help tremendously with a stroke patient’s transition to the home environment.
OTs can help stroke patients at home by:
- Helping them relearn how to walk
- Rehabilitating arm and hand paralysis
- Helping with communication.
OTs can also help stroke patients cope with the mental and emotional challenges of stroke recovery.
Stroke recovery can be one of the hardest things a person ever has to go through in their life. Luckily, OTs have the potential to make that process much easier. Read on to learn more about OTs and how they can help stroke patients recover.
OTs Are Crucial for Stroke Recovery
After a patient has a stroke, there are many challenges that the patient has to undergo on the long road to rehabilitation and recovery. OTs help stroke patients recover in the following ways (Source: AOTA):
- Motor function: The neurological damage caused by a stroke can cause lasting weakness or paralysis in the legs, arms, and face, usually concentrated on one side of the body. This motor weakness, along with related issues like foot drop, can lead to mobility problems and an increased risk of falls.
- Communication and neurological function: Along with a person’s gross motor function, stroke symptoms often impact a stroke patient’s ability to speak. Strokes can also increase the incidence of other neurological symptoms like confusion or memory issues. These are all issues that occupational therapy can help to improve.
- Independence: Undergoing occupational therapy can help a stroke patient relearn how to perform daily household tasks. Being able to complete these tasks again during recovery is a major stepping-stone towards moving into a restored lifestyle.
- Progress: Occupational therapy provides a good way for stroke patients to gauge their progress as they recover. Measuring progress for stroke patients is a good way to bolster their self-esteem while also identifying areas of strengths and weaknesses. By quantifying recovery, an occupational therapy regimen gives caregivers a jump-off point to address those issues.
- Emotional support: Along with a stroke patient’s friends and family, an occupational therapist can serve as a source of emotional support. OTs can monitor stroke patients for problems like depression, anxiety, and phobias. Family and friends are an important part of the support network for a stroke patient, but the OT can provide a neutral medical perspective.
Occupational therapy may be focused on relearning physical tasks and increasing physical endurance, but it also benefits a stroke patient’s emotional well-being to have a cheerleader in their corner, applauding their progress as they recover.
OTs Can Help Improve Motor Function
One of the main ways that OTs can help stroke patients when they return home from the hospital is to help them regain any motor function lost as a result of the stroke. Common motor function problems stemming from stroke include the following (AOTA):
- Problems with reaching for and grasping objects: Patients who undergo a stroke can suffer paralysis, weakness, and diminished fine motor function in their hands. This can lead to significant difficulty managing daily household tasks.
- Mobility issues: Since stroke results in partial paralysis in many cases, this can lead to issues with walking, especially symptoms such as drop foot and curled toes. Mobility issues following a stroke can significantly increase the risk of a dangerous fall.
- Reduced arm function: Along with leg paralysis, many stroke patients also experience arm weakness or paralysis on one side of their body. Occupational therapists can work with stroke patients to increase coordination, strength, and endurance in the arms so that daily tasks cause less fatigue and frustration.
Paralysis and other motor function disabilities in the aftermath of a stroke are some of the most devastating symptoms. These problems can last for months or even years without significant therapy to ensure that the patient’s muscles don’t atrophy from learned non-use. ( NLM)
The main issue with learned non-use is that the loss of sensation associated with stroke can cause a person to not use their limbs. This is true even if they technically still have motor function on a neurological level. The longer a stroke patient puts off strengthening their paralyzed limb through exercise, the weaker the connection between brain and muscles becomes.
OTs can help to prevent the weakening of limbs associated with stroke recovery by helping the stroke patient to perform daily exercises. These exercises are designed to strengthen those muscles as well as the connection between brain and body.
OTs Can Help Improve Communication
Along with helping physical recovery in stroke patients, OTs can also help to improve communication. Much of the heavy lifting in stroke recovery falls to speech therapists, but OTs can help to support this process. This is done by focusing on postural stability that improves speech ability in partially paralyzed stroke patients or doing mouth exercises.
Even though they are less involved in helping stroke patients learn how to speak again, if they have lost the ability to speak following a stroke, OTs are crucial for helping to communicate the needs of a stroke patient to the rest of their support network.
This is especially true when it comes to what the patient needs in terms of environmental accommodations. These tools include things like:
- Mobility aids like braces or walkers
OTs, help to communicate the needs of a stroke patient to their support network. They can also help the stroke patient to advocate for themselves.
OTs Can Help Stroke Patients Relearn Household Tasks
Occupational therapy helps to strengthen a stroke patient’s body, improve their mobility, and increase their endurance. But along with general fitness and rehabilitation, OTs are responsible for making sure stroke patients can return to their life as it was before the stroke. The inability to perform even basic household tasks can make stroke patients feel powerless and anxious.
Stroke patients may find many daily activities that most able people take for granted to be difficult or impossible in the aftermath of a stroke, including the following:
- Going to the bathroom
- Brushing teeth
- Making a cup of coffee
- Preparing a simple meal
The inability to perform these menial tasks can make a stroke patient feel overwhelmed and frightened. By working with them to gradually tackle these tasks, an occupational therapist can help to restore a sense of normalcy to a stroke patient’s life.
When an occupational therapist first begins working with a stroke patient, they will typically perform a series of assessments with the aim of:
- Finding out what the patient’s daily routine was like before their cerebral accident
- Determining which tasks the patient is having difficulty completing each day.
Armed with this information, an occupational therapist can then tailor a rehabilitation program that aims to restore those abilities.
OTs Can Help Stroke Patients Measure Progress
One of the most important aspects of regimented occupational therapy is that it gives both caregivers and the stroke patient a better understanding of where the patient’s deficits are in relation to the stroke. After assessments, OTs are able to determine:
- Mental and emotional mindset: The mindset of a stroke patient is fragile following a stroke. Depending on the severity of their disability, a stroke victim can become extremely frustrated or fall into despair as a result of trauma.
- Goals for recovery: A stroke patient may have a good idea of what they want out of their recovery—one patient may want to make it back out to the golf course without becoming fatigued. Another patient may want to be able to take care of their grandchildren. These goals can help motivate a stroke patient to work on their recovery.
- Areas of weakness: The symptoms of a stroke in recovery are diverse and range widely from motor function issues to neurological problems like memory loss and inability to speak. Part of an OT’s job is to determine what areas a stroke patient is having problems with. This way, a plan of action can be created to address and solve those issues.
- Areas of strength: Identifying a stroke patient’s strengths is just as important as identifying their areas of weakness. Pointing out to a stroke patient what daily tasks they are still able to perform well and encouraging them can help to accelerate healing and improve their outlook overall.
Along with physical exercises, there is a lot that occupational therapists can do to help stroke patients on the road to recovery as much as possible. Occupational therapy encompasses many aspects of a patient’s life, from daily activities to future goals. Together with an occupational therapist, a stroke patient can go much further in improving their quality of life than without one.
OTs Can Provide Emotional Support
Much of the work that occupational therapists do with stroke patients has to do with the connection between the mind and the body. The work of an OT doesn’t stop there, though. OTs can also provide a much-needed source of emotional support following a stroke. For elderly patients who may not have as much support from friends or family, a compassionate OT aide can be a lifesaver.
Stroke patients deal with a lot of emotional turmoil after a stroke once they’ve returned home. This can sometimes even induce a state of post-traumatic stress. The anxiety related to a fear of falling or having a second stroke can prevent a stroke patient from undertaking activities that could otherwise help them progress in their recovery. The patient may also have a newfound sense of their mortality.
Stroke patients may fall into a state of clinical depression in the aftermath of a stroke. This is similar to other OT patients who are subjected to a major medical condition such as an amputation. Occupational therapy can help to stave off depression in two ways:
- Physical exercise: The physical exercises undertaken during occupational therapy helps to release endorphins that decrease pain and can also help the body re-define pain in the mind. After a stroke, many patients may interpret multiple sensory stimuli such as temperature, light, and pressure as pain. This is the result of brain damage sustained by the stroke.
- Active listening: An occupational therapist can reduce many of the negative emotional symptoms associated with a stroke by simply showing compassion and offering their patient a chance to vent their frustrations and fears. These are sometimes negatively-tinged emotions that patients are reluctant to share with friends and family.
OTs can provide an important outlet for stroke patients to voice their frustrations, their worries, their sadness, and even their anger over their condition. Many elderly stroke patients may seem to “go downhill” after a stroke without strong intervention through therapy.
OTs Can Help Prevent Future Strokes
Occupational therapy helps patients recover from a stroke, but occupational therapy also acts as a way for patients to prevent having a second stroke. 23% of stroke patients will eventually succumb to a second stroke. ( John Hopkins Medicine) In many cases, a second stroke can be fatal for someone who has already had one.
Luckily, occupational therapy and careful monitoring following the first stroke can reduce the risks of a second stroke. Occupational therapy can help prevent a second stroke in the following ways ( CC):
- Exercise and diet: Exercise and diet are important parts of protecting a person’s health after a stroke since poor diet, and lack of exercise can increase the risks of it happening again. Even for stroke patients with impaired mobility, daily or weekly occupational therapy is a good source of low-impact exercise. This, in turn, can nudge patients into a more active lifestyle.
- Weight loss: If a stroke patient is overweight, this can increase their risk of a secondary stroke. Occupational therapists can work to help get a stroke patient’s weight down to a healthy level to reduce that risk. Occupational therapists have a good understanding of how far a stroke patient can be pushed physically in comparison to a traditional personal trainer.
- Drinking and smoking: Stroke patients should not be consuming alcohol or tobacco. An occupational therapist can help a stroke patient by explaining to them the risks involved with these practices and why it is best for the stroke patient to stop for their health.
- Coping and self-care: Stress for a stroke patient is running especially high at the point they return home from the hospital following a stroke. Not coincidentally, this is also the period where a stroke patient is most likely to incur a second stroke. OTs can point stroke patients to resources that can help them relax and decrease their stress, such as meditation or yoga.
The primary reason for occupational therapy is to help undo the damage that occurs as the result of a stroke. Through encouraging the patient towards a healthier lifestyle, an occupational therapist can go a long way towards keeping their patient from becoming a statistic when it comes to secondary strokes.
Tools to Support OT for Stroke Patients at Home
Occupational therapists use a variety of tools and exercises to help stroke patients recover at home. These are a few of the tools that are commonly used:
- Tennis ball: A tennis ball is used by OTs to help strengthen a stroke patient’s grip and improve their ability to manipulate an object in their hand. This is especially important for stroke patients who have developed weakness or paralysis of a hand or arm.
- Pinwheel: Pinwheels are a useful tool for OTs to help strengthen a stroke patient’s ability to move their mouth by blowing into it. Stroke patients can also use the spokes of the pinwheel to practice individual finger movements. The mouth strengthening exercises practiced with a pinwheel can be applied to speech therapy as well.
- Resistance bands: Strength and endurance in the hands and arms are issues that affect many stroke patients. Resistant bands are an easy way to incrementally increase resistance and increase a stroke patient’s ability to coordinate their fine motor movements.
- Weights: Working out with light weights such as wrist weights and five-pound dumbbells can prevent muscle atrophy due to learned non-use. The exertion from using weights can strengthen muscles. Weight lifting can also help improve a stroke patient’s emotional state and stress levels through exercise-induced mood elevation.
- Therapy putty: Therapy putty is a useful tool for OTs for strengthening the fingers and hands of a stroke patient. A patient’s use of their hands is one of the most important indicators for how well they will be able to perform daily tasks on their own and achieve independence from caregivers. Therapy putty can also act as a calming stim for patients who are anxious.
These tools are often used by occupational therapists. However, they can also be employed by a stroke patient’s support network to help them continue occupational therapy exercises even when they aren’t working directly with the OT.
Occupational Therapy Encourages Stroke Recovery
Even a mild stroke can rock the confidence of a stroke patient. More severe strokes can be totally debilitating. Occupational therapy is one of the most important things for a stroke patient to undergo once they’ve returned home. With the help of an occupational therapist, stroke patients can keep themselves active, gain confidence, and regain neurological integrity.
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