Many stroke survivors experience numbness in their affected limbs. This numbness feels very similar to the pins and needles one feels when their arm or leg falls asleep. When ones hand or leg is asleep it is very hard to function and that limb can sometimes experience pain. This makes it very hard for stroke survivors to be functional with their affected limbs. Luckily, stroke survivors have the ability to overcome the numbness.
What causes numbness after a stroke?
Stroke survivors experience numbness secondary to damaged brain cells. When brain cells are damaged after a stroke that area of the brain now has a hard time communicating with the nerves as well as with the cells that control motor functions.
When brain cells are damaged, they tend to have a hard time processing sensory receptors which leads to a feeling of numbness in one’s affected limb.
How can stroke survivors overcome numbness?
In order to overcome numbness it is important to retrain the brain by utilizing the theory of neuroplasticity. The principles behind neuroplasticity states that in order for the brain to rewire itself it requires repetitive exercises to be done in order to build new pathways. Therefore, it is important to start working with an occupational therapist, a physical therapist, and, if needed, a speech therapist as soon as the doctors deem you stable and fit for therapy.
One of the most effective ways to fix sensory issues after stroke is with sensory reeducation. Sensory reeducation is a way to rewire the brain and retrain the sensory pathways. There are many different sensory reeducation exercises such as having a caregiver tell you to close your eyes. The caregiver will tap your affected arm and then ask you where you felt the tap. If you get it wrong they will show you where they tapped to aid in retraining the brain. Another example would be filling a bucket with uncooked rice and placing different items in the rice such as a marble, a toy car, a pen, a penny or a paper clip and try to figure out what the object is without looking. It is important to make sure you are doing exercises like this often!
If you or a loved one are having a hard time differentiating between hot and cold an exercise you can do would be taking a cold wash cloth and placing it over your affected limb and recognizing what that feels like. After a minute, take a warm wash cloth and place it over your affected limb and take note of what it feels like. Keep repeating this exercises until you eventually learn the difference between what cold and warm feels like.
Can functional electrical stimulation help decrease numbness after a stroke?
Functional electrical stimulation delivers a shock to your muscle which will in turn activate your nerves. There currently is not much research on if functional electrical stimulation works to decrease numbness after a stroke, however, there are many therapists who incorporate functional electrical stimulation to their practices as it has demonstrated good results with their patients.
Can mirror therapy help decrease numbness after a stroke?
Mirror box therapy has been shown to help address numbness in stroke survivors. Mirror box therapy is conducted with a mirror box that obscures the patient’s affected arm. The patient will proceed to perform repetitive movements with their unaffected limb while watching their reflection in the mirror. By doing these exercises in the mirror it will give their brain the impression that they are moving their affected limb. Over time it will help rewire the brain and decrease numbness in the affected limb.
How does numbness affect everyday safety?
Numbness can affect a patient’s everyday life as well as his or her safety. For example, if someone is affected by numbness they may not notice if their clothes or shoes are on too tightly, which can cause skin breakdown and wounds. Another example is if an affected patient is in the kitchen and not paying attention to their affected limb, they may brush against the stove top and burn their hand. Therefore, it is very important to work with your therapist to address numbness and pay extra attention to your surroundings at all times to prevent injuries to your affected limb.
How long with the numbness last?
Everyone heals at different rates and there are many factors that play a role in the healing process. Many people who started stroke therapy early on and performed sensory reduction exercises regularly found that their numbness started to decrease after a couple of months. However, everyone recovers at different rates and it is never too late to make gains!
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Repetition is the key to increase mobility. Neofect Smart Rehab encourages repetition in a fun, engaging way through interactive gamified training games, challenging you to improve arm and hand function through neuroplasticity which is the brain's ability to retrain itself after an injury. Through repetition, you can strengthen other pathways in the brain to improve the use of your affected side.
- Becky Alter, OTR/LBecky is an occupational therapist and healthcare content writer based out of Denver, CO.