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Rehabilitation Techniques that Help Stroke Survivors Regain the Ability to Drive

Regaining the ability to drive after a stroke is the goal of many stroke survivors.  A goal that requires rehabilitation to relearn physical and mental skills that were lost when part of the brain was damaged. Physical and mental exercises can help stroke survivors become safe, competent drivers so they can regain their mobility freedom.

There is a strong consensus among rehabilitation experts that the most important element in any rehabilitation program is carefully directed, well-focused, repetitive practice—the same kind of practice used by all people when they learn a new skill, such as playing the piano or pitching a baseball.

Despite the physical challenges faced after a stroke, physical activity may be the top way to regain abilities that were impaired by the stroke. Physical and mental exercises that increase responsiveness and coordination in arm, hand/fingers, language and mental skills are important for stroke survivors to regain their ability to drive.

Arm Exercises
A rehabilitation therapist can teach range-of-motion stretches. Some of these involve using the other arm to produce the forces needed to move the disabled arm. Called passive exercises, these can help prevent muscle shortening and joint stiffness.

"Taking the arm and stretching it with the other arm is the bedrock of spasticity self-management," Joel Stein, MD, director of the rehabilitation medicine service and physiatrist-in-chief at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital says. You can also use the unaffected hand to stretch the thumb and all the fingers on the affected hand.

Your therapist will instruct you on how to do stretches, but these are some general guidelines:

  • Move the arm through its full range of motion at least three times a day
  • Gently stretch tighter muscles to a point of slight discomfort
  • Then hold the stretch for at least 60 seconds

Hand and Finger Exercises

Hand and finger movement and physical therapy help stroke victims relearn the use of fine motor skills. In an American Heart Association article, occupational therapist Rondi Blackburn notes a theory that repeated use of the affected side of the body -- including hand and fingers -- opens up new pathways of communication between the brain and the stroke-affected area. Thus, if you suffer a stroke, medical professionals believe repeated exercises involving affected hands and fingers retrain the brain for fine motor movement.

The American Heart Association notes several types of exercise to retrain or hone fine motor skills, from a list borrowed from stroke survivors.

  • Timed exercises placing pegs in peg boards and then removing them
  • Shooting marbles into a box multiple times each day
  • Exercising fingers with rubber bands and squeezing rubber balls help restore hand and finger function

Exercises that target range of motion, such as repeatedly pushing affected hands and fingers against a pillow or mattress, also help. Exercise also means practicing task-specific movements like opening and closing a hand that has lost its ability to grasp.

Language Exercises

After a stroke, cognitive rehabilitation can aid the mind just as physical therapy aids the body, according to Psych Central, an online mental health and psychology network. A stroke damages the brain and creates cognition problems primarily related to language--a condition known as aphasia--as well as attention, memory and vision. Recovery of language and other cognitive skills can be a long and slow process, but improvement is possible over time.

  • Name objects in the room and explain the purpose of those objects
  • Point to a board with pictures and words in order to communicate
  • Practice starting conversations, taking turns speaking and resolving misunderstandings in the conversation
  • Relearn word sounds and verbs through computer-assisted therapy.

Mental Exercises

“You can rewire the brain quickly and robustly, and in a way that has profound changes,” says Peter G. Levine, codirector of the Drake Center’s Neuromotor Recovery and Rehabilitation Laboratory at the University of Cincinnati Academic Medical Center and author of Stronger After Stroke: Your Roadmap to Recovery. Essential to that mental remapping, he states, is exercise.

Repetition is essential to regaining brain function. The more often you perform a task, the more brain cells that will get assigned to that activity and the deeper the memory will get wired into the brain. If it’s not done often enough, though, the neurons will disconnect from one another and the memory will be lost.

By: By Nancy Carey

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"Physical and mental exercises that increase responsiveness and coordination in arm, hand/fingers, language and mental skills are important for stroke survivors to regain their ability to drive. "

Check out these other helpful articles about getting back in the drivers seat after a stroke:

Driving After a Stroke

Easy Car Makeovers for Adaptive Driving

Financing Options for Adaptive Mobility Equipment

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