Saturday, March 28, 2015

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Brain + Comfort Zone = No Gain

The key to recovery is challenge. Heck, the key to learning anything new is challenge. (For stroke survivors movements that need to be re-learned are "new.")

So how much challenge is needed? Let's put it this way, one of the treatments used to improve quality and speed of walking that seems very promising is called "speed dependent treadmill training." How challenging is it? Check this out…

The survivor gets on a treadmill and harnessed to the ceiling with a strap around their chest, just under their arms. The strap doesn't do anything – it's just a safety belt so if they fall, they don't fall- if you fall oh. (heh heh- still got it!)

The speed of the treadmill is turned up until either the therapist or the stroke survivor freaks out. Trust me, I'm only nominally paraphrasing here.

The "freak out" speed is considered the survivor's top speed. The survivors then rests for about five minutes. Then he gets back on the treadmill, harnessed again, and the speed of the treadmill is brought to half of his top speed for two or three minutes – as a warm-up.

The speed of the treadmill is then increased to their top

speed. If they can handle their top speed for 10 seconds, the speed of the treadmill is increased 10%. If they can handle that, there speed is increased another 10%. If they stumble it comes down 10%. But if they can then handle that for 10 seconds it increases 10%.

For this treatment, if speeds are plotted on a graph it looks kind of like the stock market – you have peaks and valleys but your speed is quicker at the end then at the beginning.

Think about that. The level of challenge is increased so much that it's defined by the person stumbling. This is where the brain operates. A safe brain does not grow. The brain has to be brought way outside it's comfort zone or doesn't change. True for anyone trying to learn anything. True for stroke survivors.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Don't worry, therapists...

I was doing a series of talks- on stroke recovery, natch- in Georgia last week. Someone brought up a concern about my talk that I also heard last time I did a series of talks. Here's a paraphrasing of that concern:

"You're saying that a lot of what we do in the clinic is shown to be ineffective in research. Payers (insurance/Medicare/Medicaid) are going to hear about this and then... I'm afraid we're going to get paid less and have fewer treatment options."

And I laughed. On the inside because out loud would have been rude. But: How silly! To think that insurance companies are listening to researchers about what is and is not effective! Insurance cares about shareholders and Medi"care" cares about keeping costs as low as possible. One thing they care little about: the science.

Therapists, fret not. Things that research indicates are ineffective are still paid for. Consider splinting. These are the rigid pieces of plastic that keep a joint in a certain position.  They are believed to reduce muscle shortening in patients that posture in a flexed potion.

So people like this:
Get one of these...

Governmental clinical guidelines suggest splints don't work, and may make things worse. Its usually stated like this....
For stroke survivors at risk of or who have developed contractures and are undergoing comprehensive rehabilitation, the routine use of splints or prolonged positioning of muscles in a lengthened position is NOT recommended.

Is splinting paid for. Let's put it this way.
So relax therapists. Don't worry, they're not listening to researchers!

And not only will they pay for stuff that does not seem to work, they won't pay for stuff that does work yay!

Take constraint induced therapy (CIT). We've known for a while that is particularly effective for some stroke survivors. In fact, CIT shows up on every set of clinical guidelines in the English speaking world. Here for example, are the clinical guidelines for OT in Australia. Open it, and search (Ctrl+F) for the word "constraint."

Is CIT paid for? No. There is not even a "code" for it (a code is the numbers used to bill for a particular treatment). 
"stroke recovery expert"

Monday, March 2, 2015

Friday, February 27, 2015

There are two ways to recover from stroke

There are two ways to recover from stroke. And they correspond to two of the four phases of stroke.

Let me start with four phases of stroke:

1. Hyperacute
2. Acute
3. Subacute
4. Chronic

For the sake of brevity let's cross off the top two:
1. Hyperacute
2. Acute

Recovery doesn't really happen during those two.
(I'll put why those two phases are important - outside of recovery per se- at the bottom of this entry).

Recovery – broadly defined as "getting better" – happens during the subacute and chronic phases.
The subacute phase: (from approximately the first week to approximately the third month –although this can vary wildly from survivor to survivor)

Most recovery during this phase is what would be called "spontaneous recovery" or "natural recovery." Recovery during this phase is driven by healing in the brain. Specifically it has to do with neurons that are temporarily "stunned" by the stroke becoming "unstunned" and coming back online. As they come back online recovery happens. That is, it's "spontaneous." It is true that people who get therapy during the subacute phase will get better than people who don't get therapy. In fact, people who get intensive therapy – therapy that involves a lot of work and a lot of repetitions – will get better than people who just get regular therapy. But even with no traditional therapy, survivors will almost always have some significant amount of recovery during the subacute phase. Lte's put it this way...

The subacute phase: Recovery Happens

The chronic phase (from approximately three months to the end of life). 

During the chronic phase a lot of recovery can happen. This phase was traditionally known as the phase in which nothing could happen – but that has been proven to be broadly untrue. What confuses people is that recovery doesn't happen as easily during the chronic phase as it did during the subacute phase. There is (usually) no "spontaneous" recovery during the chronic phase. The survivor has to claw and scratch for every bit of recovery. And while during the subacute phase spontaneous recovery is driven by neurons flooding back, during the chronic phase brain plasticity (rewiring) comes into play. And brain plasticity during chronic phase is just as difficult for the survivor as it is for the rest of us. It involves a lot of hard work, a lot of dedication, a lot of repetitions, and a lot of  focus.

The hyperacute and acute phases.
Important things happen during these two phases, to be sure. Things like saving lives and saving brain. But these two phases are not conducive to the effort needed to drive recovery. In fact, if too much effort is made, you can enlarge the area damaged by the stroke. So during these two phases, listen to the healthcare professionals around you, and convalesce. But once the subacute phase starts, its time to "put the pedal to the metal." 

How will you know when the subacute phase starts? Spontaneous recovery happens!

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