"Task specificity" and "task-specific training" are buzzwords in stroke-specific neurorehabilitation research. The foundation of recovery from stroke is rewiring of the cortex "around" the area of infarct. And the best way for anyone to rewire their brain is to focus.
As completely as possible, the focus should be on a specific task. Most therapists will tell you that they do task-specific training.
PTs and OTs have every right to claim that what they work on is task-specific. ADLs ("activities of daily living"; the focus of much of OT) transfers, walking, etc. are inherently task-specific. But working on recovery using the "task-specific" approach can be magnified if you focus on tasks that are vital to the survivor.
You might ask, "What is more vital than ADLs, standing, walking and transferring?"
The answer is, "Ask the survivor."
The more focus, the more rewiring. Let's consider someone who has not had a stroke: Jim. Let's say Jim decides to take French because he is required to take a foreign language for school. Now consider Tina. She is an American who grew up in Texas but is now living in France.
Which of the two will get the most robust brain rewiring dedicated to learning French? Tina, quite a bit; Jim, not so much. Tina will naturally bring quite a bit more focus to the task. So there will be quite a bit more rewiring.
Now let's consider relearning walking after stroke. Walking means much more than simply getting from place to place. The ability to walk can impact the ability to be independent, the ability to earn a living, friendships, self-esteem and much more.
Walking, especially in a clinical setting, may or may not be tied to what really matters to the stroke survivor. I worked with one stroke survivor who told me, "I can't continue to walk funny. It's bad for business."
He was a surveyor. When he went on construction sites the other workers didn't believe he could do the job. And they believed this because, although his speech and cognition were perfect, his movements were typically hemiparetic. In this case, the motivation is not walking, it's really the ability to make a living.
Another stroke survivor told me, "I can't cope with this constant fear of falling." The motivation here is not walking, but fear. I know stroke survivors who have lost friendships because of their stroke. "As soon as I had my stroke, the boys stopped coming around."
Another survivor told me, "The fact that I've lost the use of my hand keeps me from doing things with my friends." The motivation here is friendship. Other stroke survivors hate being dependent on their families.
Fear, friendship, career, independence. All of these are powerful motivators.
In some ways it's easier for occupational therapists. They ask, "What is it that you have to do? What is it that you love to do?"
The answers will be as varied as stroke survivors. One might say painting is the most important thing. Another might say golf. Another might say child care.
For OTs, "task specificity" can be just about anything. An OT can work on hand grasp/release. Putting grasp/release within the context of a highly valued task is relatively easy. And putting it within the context of a valued task will drive more cortical plasticity (thus more recovery) much more than stacking cones or playing with a pegboard.
So how can PTs and PTAs promote the same sort of focus to walking as an OT promotes in a vital task done with the upper extremities? The first thing to do is to listen. "Patient education" time can be used as "therapist education" time. What did the stroke survivor do before his stroke? What did he do for a living? Did he ever play any sports or instruments? What were his hobbies?
Revealing the activities that patients most want to recover reveals what drives them. And what drives them drives their nervous system toward recovery.
But there is a gorilla in the room. What if their motivator is beyond their present capacity? Walking a golf course may be the ambition. But even nine holes of a par 3 is a couple of miles. So what is the first step in recovering enough robust walking to take the survivor miles?
First, the ambition must be revealed. Once walking a golf course is established as the goal, the goal is always kept in mind. An essential aspect of task-specific training is keeping the task in sight.
For instance, even if the painter can't yet paint, a paint brush and paints are kept as reminders of the task to be accomplished. But how do you keep a golf course in line of sight?
Keeping the task front and center is a matter of allowing the vista of a golf course to form within the walls of a therapy gym. The survivor may never make it to the golf course but the love of the game will have him walking further than he might have.
Research has revealed better tools than ever to help survivors along their journey. From partial weight-supported intensive treadmill training, tools to recover walking after stroke increase in numbers and in their evidence. But don't let survivors forget what most motivates them. The most powerful tools live inside the survivor.