Sunday, March 15, 2009



This is the history of stroke recovery. This is a perspective that is uniquely my own; a simplified version of a narrative built up in my head over the years. It will be in multiple parts. How many parts? Well, answering that question would involve fancy-underpancy planning, to which I have an aversion.

Histories are important because they tie people, which is what people like to think about (generally), to events. In this case “events” refers to the ambling from there to here; from not knowing what a stroke was to understanding quite a bit about not only stroke, but recovery, too. Like most of our collective story, it all starts with cavemen… I wrote an article about it. And there is a chapter in my book, about how cavemen might have handled stroke. (One editor suggested I change every “caveman” to “caveperson” which I didn’t do because really?)


Anyway…so it starts with our ancestors that lived in caves. More accurately, it wasn’t about where they lived, but how much they moved. They moved in hunter-gatherer tribes. These were small bands of individuals, begat (!) from our common Mom (or “CoMom”), Lucy. These folks walked and walked and walked, always on two legs. Two leg walking was good because allowed us to see more stuff (because we were taller), and use our hands to carry junk (because they weren’t doing anything else and we feared they’d dwindle into tiny T-Rex-style flippers with claws) and keep us cool in the Kalahari heat (because standing provides less surface area). As you can see, I’m no anthropomorficologist, but this is my story, so I’ll filter the facts the way I see fit thank you.

So we walked and roamed and found stuff and ate it. We were also really good at hunting because, although we're not the best sprinters, we were great at distances running and walking. So we would run after edible beasts at our own two-legged pace. Once we caught up to them, it was a 2 fer 1; They were too tired to run and/or fight, and they were so hot they were already half-cooked!

If an individual had a stroke, there would have been a general feeling that some sort of higher power was pissed. It was probably an omniscient female deity, because all of our deities were female back then. And no wonder. There is now a belief that our numbers shrunk to just a few thousand at one point, probably because of a severe drought. So anything that could give birth would be seen as (as Kung-Foo Panda would say) awesome and attractive. So once the ever-pregnant She-God decided you needed a smack-down, a smack-down smacked upon thee. And if She chose, she would give you a "smack upside the head", which is what cavefolk used to call a stroke. And as I mentioned in my article, there would have been a serious effort to get the stroke survivor on their feet and the “therapy” would have been focused and ferocious. And it would be directed not by a therapist, but by survival instinct. This instinct knows no rational bounds, and no stinkin’ stroke was going to stop us from surviving. The survival instinct is just not something we access much any more.

We’re now in the “fat and happy” part of evolution (anthropomorficologically speaking).

This is how I've put it earlier:

Early humans and hunter-gatherer tribes of today may have had one advantage over present-day humans: A capacity for hard work. These were rugged people who survived using extreme strength and physicality. They knew what hard physical work was and they knew no other lifestyle than that of survival.

Intensity and frequency of post-stroke rehabilitation is one of the hot topics among stroke researchers. Research has shown that patients spend as little as 13 percent of their day (8 a.m. to 5 p.m.) involved in rehabilitation efforts within the first 14 days after the stroke while spending 78 percent of their time in bed or sitting next to their bed. Might the ability of our evolutionary cousins to couple their huge capacity for physical work with the natural demands of life in a hunter-gatherer tribe have some lessons for today's stroke survivor?

Modern-day researchers believe there are lessons. This belief is reflected in so many of the newer recovery options that involve so many more hours of work. "Intensive therapy" and "over-challenge" is the way researchers put it. We’re trying to get stroke survivors, by hook or by trick, to access their inner survival instinct.


And that’s the way it stood for 3 mill plus years. You’d get a stroke and you’d fight like hell to get back to where you once belonged.

Hippocrates showed up 2400 YEARS AGO and did something remarkable: he defined stroke. He wrote about stroke and aphasia and TIA’s (transient or “mini” strokes). He made up a word for it: Plesso. Which meant “Slapped upside the head by God.” 250 years later another Greek doc, Galen, said that he thought stroke was “thick and dense humors” built up in the ventricles of the brain. Which, you know, is a pretty good guess that sounds a bit like an ischemic (block) stroke. Galen was pretty interesting. He was the personal physician to Marcus Aurelius and Commodus, two of the characters in one of my fav flicks, Gladiator.

Then nada for a thousand years or so and then the Germans came up with the word “strAcian” whch loosely meant “bonked on the head with a kilo of Spätzle.” The derivative of this word is stroke. But Hippocrates’sess’s word, Plesso was the basis for the word apoplexy, which you still hear on old Andy Griffin episodes.


Working in the early 1900’s, Sir Charles Sherrington was a colossus of all things neurological. Sherrington was a Nobel winner (1932, functions of neurons). It is hard to explain how ginormous this guy was. His ideas on what drove human movement were law. One of his hypotheses was called reflexology. Reflexology basically said that all control over muscles came from the spinal cord, and was just a series of reflexes. The brain got involved, sure, but just a filter for the prime mover: reflexes.

“Sherringtonian reflexology” was adopted by many of the most influential physical therapists that ever lived. Sherrington had a great influence on PT and OT as it related to stroke. His influence was especially strong from the 1950's to the 1990's. From the '50s to the '70s was when physical and occupational therapy was just beginning to address stroke-specific therapies. The problem is they had inaccurate tests, so it was difficult to determine if what they were doing was actually working.

They had another problem, as well. Some therapists took Sherrington’s reflexology and smeared it on every aspect of stroke recovery like a kid with hot toast and runny peanut butter. For his part, Sherrington disavowed the idea that it was all about reflexes (and accepted that movement was controlled and learned in the brain) by the late '40s. Hey, he was a bright guy and a true scientist; if new evidence comes to light, you change. If you want definitive answers, look to religion.

The problem was that a few influential therapists, most forcefully Berta Bobath, never got the memo that it is in the brain, not the spinal cord, that control resides. In her book Adult Hemiplegia (1970), Bobath began writing about, teaching and generally espousing that it was all about reflexes—which come from the spinal cord. Bobath also believed the way survivors naturally move after stroke was so bad that therapists should not allow the movement to take place. The way that survivors move is called synergistic movement. It is still believed, by many therapists influenced by Bobath to be movement so evil that Bobath and her followers set about separating stroke survivors from the only movement they had! Fast forward to 2000 and the Bobath Center (sorry, Centre), the British seat of all things Bobath. They issued the following statement: “While certain activities are not encouraged in some cases, the idea of stopping a client from moving, especially if they are motivated to do so, cannot be supported on financial, moral or scientific grounds.” But it has been difficult to let go of a core concept that had been a cornerstone of the Bobath approach for decades. For example, in 2008 an article (p.133) defending the Bobath approach wrote, "Abnormal/atypical patterns of coordination need to be suppressed and unwanted movements controlled..." Under this premise, you'd need someone with you during the entire arc of recovery. Otherwise you might move wrong.

Stroke survivors need the ugly movement to get to good movement. Imagine yelling to a baby, “Look at you, you duck-footed fool! Bend your knees and stop falling!!” Imagine telling someone who is learning a language (or instrument, or anything), “Stop making mistakes!” Learning requires mistakes. Mistakes corrected are learning.

Bobath’s therapy, called neurodevelopmental technique (NDT) is still very popular, but it’s not very scientifically-based. (See Here. Here. Here. Here. And a great non-scientific discussion here). My suggestion is to avoid therapists who say I’m a “this-based therapist, or a that-based therapists.” Instead, look for therapists who say something along the lines of, “I’m an evidence-based therapist. I consider the best science and meld it with my clinical experience.”

Weirdly, a contemporary of Bobath, Signe Brunnström, who also published her best known work in 1970, was clear right out the box: Use any movement, synergistic or not. We now know we need to encourage “ugly” movement to rewire the brain neuroplastically. Not only that, but Brunnström suggested really forward thinking concepts that are accepted by stroke-recovery researchers all over the world. Among them were Brunnström’s “6 stages of recovery.” Despite the fact that Hippocrates had defined stroke 2400 years before, Brunnström was the first person to fully delineate the predictable steps towards recovery. It turns out that her stages of recovery are so accurate that they can be correlated with brain-scanning technology like MRI (see Here and here). Just like Einstein, Brunnström predicted stuff and then waited for the world to catch up. The bad news was that Bobath’s NDT was wildly more popular than Brunnström’s techniques. Why was Bobath more popular than Brunnström? It may have been a simple issue of duration of message. Brunnström was diagnosed with Alzheimers and began to live in a nursing home in 1976. Bobath died in 1991.


Edward Taub represents the full-on separation from the “reflexes rule” argument. He showed, through animal testing that, even when you get rid of reflexes (with an operation that cuts nerves to the spinal cord) you can still learn new movement. Repetitive practice movement drives changes in the brain. Those changes lead to better movement. This ushered in constraint-induced therapy, and other ideas that were as simple as pie: repeat a movement and that movement will get better.

Just like the cavefolk did.

Well duh. And it only took us forever to figure out what we already knew.

My daughter wants to to play soccer now. The End.


Dean said...

It was rather depressing that my doctors seemed to follow this Hippocratic dictum that ‘It is impossible to cure a severe attack of apoplexy and difficult to cure a mild one’ from 2400 years ago.

seanpdineen said...

My best friend Dr. Andrew Kramer was a pt in NJ for 70 years. Fought a jihad with Bertha Bobath and her cockied theory. He hated her business like approach and lack of compassion. Any movement said AJK, restores muscle strength, and psychological joy. She ended up putting posion in her husband's boose. Her ideas about bullying have screwed up the cp community as much as Bettleheim did for aspies.
I am a college prof with cp, and am glad someone else understands her cooky religion deguised as rehab,

Joyce Hoffman said...

I was employed at Cozen O'Connor, a huge, international law firm. I worked at the largest office in Philadelphia when I had my stroke.

It took me about a year to realize I could never go back there. It also took that long to realize I was disabled. But you simply can't go through life and allow pain and adversity to dictate your behavior. I believe this thought to be true now, over a year later.

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