Saturday, December 24, 2011

Stroke Recovery, Stroke Rehabilitation: A Message to Therapists

There you sit, face to face with a stroke survivor. Only a few days ago he was a vibrant, energetic community member... employee... family member and now is sitting in front of you…. aphasic… hemiparetic …scared. The family sits anxiously behind him. They’re eager to get their loved one back and now they look to you. “When?” they ask. “How?” they inquire. And make no mistake, no matter who has talked to them before and no matter how blunt other health professionals have been, they hold hope for full recovery. Between their expectations and their slowly materializing nightmares, you are the last line of defense.

This is not a good time to ask, “Are my skills up to this?”

What if you simply want to do what is the best neurological therapy available? What if you want to treat based on the best available scientific evidence. What if you don't want to be influenced by the wide variety of competing schools of neurorehabilitation, each with their own books and seminars and cult of personality leaders? 

Want to scrape all the BS away? Go here: meta-analysis.

A meta-analysis is simply a study of studies. Researchers take all the available pertinent studies and then determine which studies are worthy of inclusion based on a variety of criterion. Then, of the studies that make the cut, each is given a certain weight depending on the number of participants (more is generally better), if they are blinded, the quality of outcome measures, and so on. All the available data is run through an algorithm and voila! Meta-analyses provide a “box score”. Simplified, it will look like this:

Therapy “XYZ” = -8.5
Therapy “123” = 9.3
Therapy “EFG” = 7.2
Therapy “ABC” = 27.6

Therapy “ABC” looks best, doesn’t it? Are you using “ABC”?

But trust in meta-analyses assumes trust in the scientific method. Phrases like evidence based and best practice are contingent on an inherent belief in the scientific method as related to rehabilitation research. 

(There is actually a remarkable amount of resistance to the scientific method, not just in rehabilitation but everywhere... deniers of global warming, human existence in the current form for the last quarter million years, evolution, a man on the moon, etc. etc. I find it interesting that folks that are willing to deny science embrace it wholeheartedly if they are diagnosed with cancer. Oncology; based in science.)

Rehabilitation clinicians, in all their forms, graduate from colleges and colleges within universities that are usually called something like "College of allied health science." 

With regard to rehabilitation research for stroke, what exactly is involved in the scientific method? How do medical and research doctors come to conclusions about what does and does not work?

As with many things medical, it started with Hippocrates. Hippocrates was the first to describe stroke, transient ischemic attacks and aphasia. Hippocrates, however, provided no clues on how to rehab stroke survivors and for more than 2400 years little was written and we know of few interventions used to facilitate recovery from stroke.

Fast-forward to the period from the early 1950’s until the early 1980’s. Individual therapists armed with “keen observational skills”, pencil, paper and a goniometer published their observations and claimed it an effective therapeutic intervention. During this period, therapists could reasonably say, “I know it works because I’ve seen it work in my patients.” or “There are no better alternatives”. Now, anyone armed with the power of meta-analysis can refute these claims with a simple statement.

“Prove it.”

In many ways clinical rehabilitation research can trace it’s genesis to widespread hospital usage of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) in the 1980’s. Suddenly researchers were able to see the fruit of their therapy by simply examining before/after images of brains of study participants. Why is this so important? Because if fMRI shows activity during purposeful movement and that activity did not exist prior to the intervention, then there is reasonable proof of neuroplasticity. And neuroplasticity is the foundation of all lasting change in the ability to move.

Research and medical doctors have used cutting edge diagnostics including kinematics, electromyography, brain imaging, and the most reliable and valid outcome measures to completely reshape the world of stroke rehabilitation. In fact, it’s not a world at all. It’s an expanding universe.

And why is stroke rehabilitation it expanding so rapidly? A basic understanding of the sheer enormity of dollars provides some insight.
  • $52 billion is spent on stroke care each year. 
  • The projected costs for stroke for the next 45 years: $2 Trillion.
  • There are 50 million stroke survivors worldwide. (In a global  economy.)
Enter entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs have completely changed the way stroke rehabilitation is conceptualized, researched, and administered. Medical device companies, business minded bioengineers, electrical engineers, biological and clinical neuroscientists, doctors and therapists are aggressively seeking a piece of the burgeoning multi-trillion dollar stroke rehabilitation pie. This explosive increase in the number of gizmos and treatment techniques has created a total mutation of the paradigm for rehabilitation for stroke. The resultant technological tsunami will force an unprecedented marriage between patient and technology while forging a massive adaptation by universities that train therapists, and facilities that want to continue treating stroke survivors.

And make no mistake; entrepreneurs are marketing directly to stroke survivors. If you want insight into this process have a look at the advertisements in the two major free magazines for stroke survivors; the magazine of the National Stroke Association Stroke Smart and Stroke Connection magazine, published by the American Stroke Association.

And what of stroke survivors? Have they not always strived towards full recovery? Unfortunately, the history of stroke survivors is story of warehousing and lowered expectations. But don’t blink: things are changing fast. Baby boomer’s increased economic clout and heightened expectations intersecting with the mushrooming middle class in less developed countries has and will continue to create a new breed of stroke survivor who will want, need and expect more recovery.

And all this leads to more high quality stroke rehabilitation research.

Rapid technological change has led to ever more accurate determination of an intervention’s effectiveness and if effective, how effective.  The force of a flood of dollars, both public and private, has changed the way stroke rehabilitation research is realized. Modern research often involves hundreds of specifically randomized participants and involves medical personnel (often including therapists) with degrees specific to their responsibilities within the study. Further, there are institutional review boards to guarantee ethical standards within the research trails, federal (FDA) oversight, and precise handling of collected data. Private, for profit companies, with and without the aid of public funding (NIH, NINDS, public and private universities) are spending hundreds of millions of dollars, on a variety of modalities and therapeutic interventions designed to ameliorate the residual aspects of stroke.

And all of that is only half the battle. In order for studies to be distributed in a manner that is respected by the medical community at large, it has to be published in peer-reviewed journals. Even once the study is done there is an expectation that the same or similar studies will follow that speak directly to reliability (the ability for an intervention to have the same or very similar results over and over.) Once a critical mass of research is done on a therapeutic intervention meta-analysis is done to, essentially, provide a numerical “score” that pits therapy against therapy and declares a winner.

 “I will continue with diligence to keep abreast of advances in medicine.” So says the Hippocratic Oath. Medical doctors have endeared themselves to the public for centuries, millennia really, by accepting a direct influence of science on their professional practice. Therapists and assistants should do the same.

This is not a good moment to ask,  “Are my skills up to this?”

Unless they are.


oc1dean said...

I would hate to be the therapist when a hard-driving typeA baby boomer comes in and starts asking very pointed questions. I may be an early baby boomer but I didn't know enough to question my medical staff.
Woe to the staff if I ever get a second stroke.

Mike said...

My therapists were confused where to start because I have all mojor problems except aphasia.And the insurance hasso much influence how long the therapy should last.My therapists failed.I went home so disabled.They were not up to the challenge, I asked to be discharged because nothing was happening.If there are so many deficits, the question is, "where do I start?" Now I kinow plenty of time got wasted with my clueless therapists.Took me 2 years ti find the best therapists who are evidence-based and can make things work like magic.

Wild Bill said...

I am Wild Bill on the strokenet. I had an ischemic stroke, followed
by a hemorragic one about 2 weeks
later, in May,2006. I'm told that
two of my docs advised my wife to
let be go--not much chance for recovery. A third doc said that he
thought I might make it, if placed on a respirator and put into a coma. I had great medical care,
initally, and was moved to an outstanding rehab facility(Health
South in Arlington, Texas). After
learning the basics, I was released
to return home to central Texas, where my medical care continued by a large medical hospital. The care
continued, but in 2007, my therapy
doctor said that I was not satisfactory progress. My wife took me to a local fitness center, which I joined and hired a personal trainer. He and I continue to work together to this date. While working with him, I have sought therapy, any place that will give it to me, and I have learned that most therapists
teach me something new. I've also
learned that all rehab centers are
different; some have cutting-edge
technology; some have maybe only a
therapist. I neglected to say that I am a disabled vet and that I have had some therapy from a VA
hospital. My left hand and arm continue to be disfunctional, and
I'm walking small distances with a quad cane. I still use a chair for any significant distance. I'm
very much alive and continue to use the Internet looking for anything that might help me complete my recovery. I've foun a couple of things, but I don't want
to spend the money on something that won't do me any good. Wild Bill

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