Strokes: signs, symptoms and post-stroke impairments

According to the CDC, in the year 2020 stroke was the fifth leading cause of death in the United States. There are two types of stroke: an ischemic stroke, where there is an interruption in blood traveling to the brain (i.e. blood clot, embolism), and a hemorrhagic stroke, where there’s bleeding into the brain (i.e. burst aneurysm). Both types of stroke are a medical emergency, which is why it’s important to recognize the symptoms: blurry or double vision, difficulty understanding speech, slurred speech, paralysis or numbness in the face, arms or legs, and more. All of these symptoms can arise in stroke survivors because the brain tissue itself becomes damaged. This affects central nervous system function, which can lead to altered spinal sensory input and deficient motor control.

Not only is stroke one of the leading causes of death, it is one of the leading causes of long-term disability. The degree of impediment after a stroke can vary greatly, but common issues include the following:

  • Paralysis of muscles on one side of the body or face.
  • Pain, numbness or tingling in the extremities.
  • Difficulty with activities of daily living (ability to stand, walk, eat, speech…etc.).
  • Memory loss.
  • Cognitive impairment (i.e. difficulties with emotional regulation, thinking, or planning).

It’s important to keep in mind that the central nervous system is very delicate. This is why it has multiple barriers that protect it from harm, such as the cerebrospinal fluid, the meninges and the vertebral column. Because it is so sensitive, when it gets damaged this damage can be long-term and even permanent. However, the brain itself is very resilient. Even with significant brain injury, it has an incredible ability to reorganize itself so that healthy areas can take over the function of damaged areas. This ability to adapt and rewire itself is called neuroplasticity.

How does a brain heal after injury?

With stroke patients, the brain tissue itself is directly damaged. This means that the neuronal pathways that allowed us to effortlessly converse with friends and family, consume food, use the restroom, and move our limbs have become damaged or disconnected. In order to rewire our brain and relearn these skills we need to stimulate neuroplasticity. The question, then, is how can we do this?

A great way to understand how our brains can heal is to think about how our brains developed in the first place.

After birth, babies have a very limited capacity to move, think, and interact with the world. They are not born with these skills already sharpened; they develop them over time. In the beginning, what heavily drives a baby’s brain development is (1) its capacity to be extremely receptive to the environment and (2) repetition…lots and lots of repetition. Babies take in information (i.e. what they see, hear, smell, taste and touch) and they’re able to progressively put two and two together until they eventually develop fine motor skills and cognitive skills. For this to occur, they need to adequately take information into the brain, process this information, and come up with a proper response. This of course happens through constant trial and error, but the big picture is that brain development largely occurs due to receptiveness and repetition.

Let’s come back to the topic of stroke…

After a stroke, people can lose muscle control in their hands, feet, face, and more.  This can make it very hard for them to perform activities of daily living, such as feeding themselves, walking or talking. Similar to babies, the best way to relearn these motions is to practice them repetitively. Following a stroke, when we constantly practice a skill (through physical therapy, rehab, and brain games) we are able to rewire neuronal connections so that healthy brain tissue is able to take over the function of the damaged brain tissue. This repetition is how we stimulate neuroplasticity.

And yet, when we mentioned the brain’s ability to heal earlier we mentioned two crucial components. We already talked about repetition, but we certainly can’t forget about receptivity (our body’s ability to receive and process information).

This is where chiropractic care comes in…

How can chiropractic support your recovery after a stroke?

Your nervous system is the main messenger in your body. Its task is to maintain proper communication between your body’s information processing center (your brain) and the rest of your tissues and organs. The goal behind this is to provide your body with a way to maintain balance (homeostasis) with the constantly changing internal and external environments that bombard us day in and day out. Not only does this receptiveness allow us to survive, it also allows us to be aware of what’s around us and to go about our lives.

And it is our nervous system that allows us to be both receptive and responsive to all kinds of stimuli. Ideally, nerves speedily transmit information up and down the spinal cord without interruption. In reality, more often than not we have misalignments in the vertebral bones that can put pressure on these nerves, and when these nerves have pressure on them, it can impede the speed and flow of communication going from our body to our brain. When it comes to stroke recovery patients, the brain itself is damaged, but by making sure that the input to the brain is uninterrupted, we can support your brain’s healing process. Remember, babies’ brains develop through proper input (receptivity, movement and repetitive stimulation), in which case taking pressure off the nerves that transmit input can facilitate the brain’s healing process.

Through chiropractic care our aim is to help promote motor recovery and central neural function. We have seen our acute and chronic stroke patients report improved mobility and speech, less pain, and increased sensation through the limbs. Of course, we also need to understand that things take time and a single session of chiropractic will not achieve all of this. It is through consistent chiropractic care that we can make change and maintain it as well. With our gentle, specific and neurologically-based chiropractic technique (Torque Release Technique) we’re able to support this process of healing.

If you’re interested in finding an alternative way to support your body’s ability to heal or to complement stroke rehabilitation protocols, reach out to us or your local chiropractor!