Healing After a Stroke: A Look at Neuroplasticity

Older woman receiving therapy after a stroke.

In an earlier blog article on the topic of stroke, I talked about how research has shown that the brain does attempt to heal itself when damaged by stroke.

In this article, I would like to talk more about how the healing is able to happen by explaining neuroplasticity. 

Neuroplasticity refers to capacity of the brain to change its pathways, its circuitry, by learning a new skill, experiencing something new or in response to damage that may occur as the result of a stroke.

What Happens to the Brain During a Stroke?

The brain is an amazing complex organ that manages everything that we think, feel and do. When an individual suffers a stroke, decreased blood flow to areas of the brain occurs causing death or damage to nerve cells (neurons). Pathways of communication from one area of the brain to another are disrupted.

It was once believed that when damage to the brain occurred, there was little hope of any recovery. We now know that this is not true. The brain is constantly changing in an effort to function the best that it can—and, crucially, to heal itself after damage.

Recovery after a Stroke

When a highway is damaged preventing passage there are two options. Repair the damage or find a way around the damage to get to your destination. In a sense, recovery following a stroke follows this same path. 

Shortly after a stroke, inflammation of brain tissue begins in an attempt to clean up some of the damage caused by the stroke. Damaged neurons start the process of healing themselves. Next, for days, weeks and months following stroke the brain takes advantage of its ability to rewire itself—this is neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to develop new pathways, change existing pathways or to recruit other areas of the brain to take over the function of the damaged areas. 

You may be aware that the right side of the brain controls movement on the left side of the body and the left side of the brain controls movement on the right. When stroke causes damage to the right side of the brain, the brain may try to regain that movement by engaging the motor areas of the left side of the brain, areas adjacent to the right motor area or other areas of the brain such as the brainstem to regain movement.  

Immediate Rehabilitation is Key to Promoting Neuroplasticity 

As I mentioned in the earlier blog article, early rehabilitation after stroke is an important component to help the brain heal and prevent greater disability. Physical, occupational, speech therapies are extremely important in helping the brain “learn” the new pathways to recover function. Relying on your support system; managing stress and mood; eating well; obtaining adequate sleep; staying engaged physically, mentally and socially are important in your recovery and in attaining your highest level of function and quality of life. 

For more information on stroke risk factors, prevention, and how to BE FAST to spot a stroke, visit http://lghealth.org/lp/stroke

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Jon E. Bentz, PhD

Jon E. Bentz, PhD, ABN, is a clinical neuropsychologist with Lancaster General Health Physicians Neuropsychology. A graduate of East Carolina University and Virginia Tech, Dr. Bentz has worked in the rehabilitation field for more than 30 years, providing assessment and treatment of cognitive and behavioral disorders resulting from stroke, traumatic brain injury, and other dementias and neurological disorders.

Call: 717-544-3172

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The LG Health Hub features breaking medical news and straightforward advice to help individuals of all ages make healthy choices and reach their wellness goals. The blog puts articles by trusted Lancaster General Health clinical experts, good 'n healthy recipes, videos, patient stories, and health risk assessments at your fingertips.


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