Stroke survivors and caregivers are often frustrated with stroke recovery research. Why are the simple questions not even asked, they wonder. Typical questions are:
1. Why are there no "head to head" comparisons between interventions. For instance, why don't they compare electrical stimulation to the Saeboflex?
2. Why don't they combine interventions the way a therapist would do therapy? For instance, why aren't there studies that look at electrical stimulation and the Saebo flex?
3. Why aren't simple questions answered, like, "What is the most effective treatment option given my level of arm movement?"
These are the sort of questions that confuse people that are not in research. I hate to be an apologist for research and researchers, but let me offer some insight...
Head to head comparisons are never done, in any pathology, for any intervention, initially. For instance you probably didn't see a lot of comparisons between different cholesterol drugs, initially. One company makes a cholesterol drug, they put a lot of research into it, and then they put it on the market. A second company does the same thing. But both those companies will make money off of those drugs, so the cost of the studies are justified. If there's a comparison study done, nobody's can make any money. In fact, one of the two drugs is gonna look really bad, and sell even less. So who's going to fund a study like that?
Now you may find studies that compare different cholesterol drugs. Cholesterol drugs have been around since the early 1970s. Rehabilitation research into stroke really started in the mid-to-late 90s. It wasn't that people weren't doing research before then, it was just that the outcome measures were really poor. Let's put it this way, to test how well somebody was moving-- prior to the mid-1990s-- we used a fancy protractor, and a VCR. Now we use kinematics labs. Prior to the early 1990s we had no way to image the brain, and now we have MRI, functional MRI, transcranial magnetic stimulation, and on and on.
Again, not to be an apologist for researchers, but there are other issues as well. For instance, when should you do the studies? Should you do them when the stroke survivor is acute, or during the subacute phase, or the chronic phase? Or should you do all three? It takes some time to explain, but recovery is very different during those three phases. And here's another problem: recruitment. It is very difficult to recruit stroke survivors during the acute and subacute phases. It has to do with the fact that, first of all, you can't get in the way of "standard of care." That is, it is unethical for research to get in the way of what a stroke survivor would typically get. Also, what that standard of care is doing is considered a "confound" in research. A confound is something that the researchers have no control over. In this case the confound would be the therapist, and the therapy that the therapist is offering. Each therapist is different, and each therapy or combination of therapies is different. The researcher can do nothing about those variables (confounds).
Also, for acute studies, it's incredibly difficult to recruit. "Hi Mr. Smith, my name is Pete, I'm from research down the hall. You had a stroke two days ago. Would you like to get involved in a clinical trial? Is now a good time are you, or are you busy?" You see the problem.
The reason they don't combine interventions is because we haven't even figured out if the interventions by themselves work. Within one intervention, let's say electrical stimulation for example, we don't even know what the proper dosage should be. Is it a half an hour three times a day? Is it 15 minutes five times a day? Does it depend on how well the stroke survivor moves to begin with? What about their spasticity-- how does that affect things? So research tends to focus on a very tight question. Let's get that tight question answered first, then we can be pretty safe to start as the second, third, fourth... 15th question.
What works best for what stroke survivor in what situation is impossible to determine at this point. The algorithm for this stuff is incredibly complicated because the stroke can hit any part of the brain, people can have different sequelae (symptoms other stroke), and different comorbidities (illnesses outside the stroke). Further, they can be of different motivational levels, different ages, and on and on.
But that doesn't help you. You don't have time. If you're reading this blog is because you need answers now. The good news is, if you're willing to educate yourself a little bit, your guess is as good as ours.