Stroke : Recovery

The injury to the brain caused by a stroke can lead to widespread and long-lasting problems.

Although some people may recover quickly, many people who have a stroke need long-term support to help them regain as much independence as possible.

This process of rehabilitation depends on the symptoms and their severity.

It often starts in hospital and continues at home or at a local clinic in your community.

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A team of different specialists may help with your rehabilitation, including physiotherapists, psychologists, occupational therapists, speech and language therapists, dietitians, and specialist nurses and doctors.

You'll be encouraged to actively participate in the rehabilitation process and work with your care team to set goals you want to achieve during your recovery.

The different treatment and rehabilitation methods for some of the common problems caused by strokes are outlined below.

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Psychological impact

2 of the most common psychological problems that can affect people after a stroke are:

  • depression – many people experience intense bouts of crying, feel hopeless and withdraw from social activities 
  • anxiety – where people experience general feelings of fear and anxiety, sometimes with moments of intense, uncontrolled feelings of anxiety (anxiety attacks)

Feelings of anger, frustration and bewilderment are also common.

You'll receive a psychological assessment from a member of your healthcare team soon after your stroke to check if you're experiencing any emotional problems.

Advice should be given to help you deal with the psychological impact of stroke. This includes the impact on relationships with other family members and any sexual relationship.

There should also be a regular review of any problems of depression and anxiety, and psychological and emotional symptoms generally.

These problems may settle down over time, but if they're severe or last a long time, GPs can refer people for expert healthcare from a psychiatrist or clinical psychologist.

For some people, medicines and psychological therapies, such as counselling or cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) may help.

CBT is a therapy that aims to change the way you think about things to produce a more positive state of mind.

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Cognitive impact

Cognitive is a term that refers to the many processes and functions our brain uses to process information.

One or more cognitive functions can be disrupted by a stroke, including:

  • communication
  • spatial awareness – having a natural awareness of where your body is in relation to your immediate environment 
  • memory
  • concentration
  • executive function – the ability to plan, solve problems and reason about situations 
  • praxis – the ability to carry out skilled physical activities, such as getting dressed or making a cup of tea

As part of your treatment, each one of your cognitive functions will be assessed, and a treatment and rehabilitation plan will be created.

You can be taught a wide range of techniques that can help you relearn disrupted cognitive functions, such as recovering your communication skills through speech and language therapy.

There are many ways to compensate for any loss of cognitive function, such as using memory aids, diaries and routines to help plan daily tasks.

Most cognitive functions will return with time and rehabilitation, but you may find they do not return to the way they were before.

The damage a stroke causes to your brain also increases the risk of developing vascular dementia.

This may happen immediately after a stroke or may develop some time after the stroke happened.

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Movement problems

Strokes can cause weakness or paralysis on one side of the body, and can result in problems with co-ordination and balance.

Many people also experience extreme tiredness (fatigue) in the first few weeks after a stroke, and may also have difficulty sleeping, making them even more tired.

As part of your rehabilitation, you should be seen by a physiotherapist, who'll assess the extent of any physical disability before creating a treatment plan.

Physiotherapy will often involve several sessions a week, focusing on areas such as exercises to improve your muscle strength and overcome any walking difficulties.

The physiotherapist will work with you by setting goals. At first, these may be simple goals, such as picking up an object.

As your condition improves, more demanding long-term goals, such as standing or walking, will be set.

A careworker or carer, such as a member of your family, will be encouraged to become involved in your physiotherapy.

The physiotherapist can teach you both simple exercises you can do at home.

If you have problems with movement and certain activities, such as getting washed and dressed, you may also receive help from an occupational therapist. They can find ways to manage any difficulties.

Occupational therapy may involve adapting your home or using equipment to make everyday activities easier, and finding alternative ways of achieving tasks you have problems with.

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Communication problems

After having a stroke, many people experience problems with speaking and understanding, as well as reading and writing.

If the parts of the brain responsible for language are damaged, this is called aphasia, or dysphasia.

If there's weakness in the muscles involved in speech as a result of brain damage, this is known as dysarthria.

You should see a speech and language therapist as soon as possible for an assessment and to start therapy to help you with your communication.

This may involve:

  • exercises to improve your control over your speech muscles
  • using communication aids – such as letter charts and electronic aids
  • using alternative methods of communication – such as gestures or writing

Find out more about how aphasia is treated

You can also read our guide on caring for someone with communication difficulties.

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Swallowing problems

The damage caused by a stroke can interrupt your normal swallowing reflex, making it possible for small particles of food to enter your windpipe.

Problems with swallowing is known as dysphagia. Dysphagia can lead to lung damage, which can trigger a lung infection (pneumonia).

You may need to be fed using a feeding tube during the initial phases of your recovery to prevent any complications from dysphagia.

The tube is usually put into your nose and passed into your stomach (nasogastric tube), or it may be directly connected to your stomach in a small operation done using local anaesthetic (percutaneous endoscopic gastrostomy, or PEG).

In the long term, you'll usually see a speech and language therapist several times a week to manage your swallowing problems.

Treatment may involve tips to make swallowing easier, such as taking smaller bites of food and advice on posture, and exercises to improve control of the muscles involved in swallowing.

Find out more about how dysphagia is treated

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Visual problems

Stroke can sometimes damage the parts of the brain that receive, process and interpret information sent by the eyes.

This can result in losing half the field of vision – for example, only being able to see the left or right side of what's in front of you.

Stroke can also affect the control of the eye muscles. This can cause double vision. 

If you have problems with your vision after a stroke, you'll be referred to an eye specialist called an orthoptist, who can assess your vision and suggest possible treatments.

For example, if you have lost part of your field of vision, you may be offered eye movement therapy. This involves exercises to help you look to the side with the reduced vision.

You may also be given advice about how to perform tasks that can be difficult if your vision is reduced on one side, such as getting dressed.

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Bladder and bowel control

Some strokes damage the part of the brain that controls the bladder and bowel.

This can result in urinary incontinence and difficulty with bowel control.

Some people may regain bladder and bowel control quite quickly, but if you still have problems after leaving hospital, help is available from the hospital, your GP and specialist continence advisers.

Ask for advice if you have a problem, as there are lots of treatments that can help.

These include:

Find out more about treating urinary incontinence

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Sex after a stroke

Having sex will not put you at higher risk of having another stroke. There's no guarantee you will not have another stroke, but there's no reason why it should happen while you're having sex.

Even if you have been left with a severe disability, you can experiment with different positions and find new ways of being intimate with your partner.

Be aware that some medicines can reduce your sex drive (libido), so make sure your doctor knows if you have a problem as there may be other medicines that can help.

Some men may experience erectile dysfunction after a stroke.

Speak to a GP or your rehabilitation team if this is the case, as there are several treatments that may help.

Read more about good sex and treating erectile dysfunction.

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Driving after a stroke

If you have had a stroke or TIA, you can not drive for 1 month. Whether you can return to driving depends on what long-term disabilities you may have and the type of vehicle you drive.

It's often not physical problems that can make driving dangerous, but problems with concentration, vision, reaction time and awareness that can develop after a stroke.

A GP can advise you on whether you can start driving again 1 month after your stroke, or whether you need further assessment at a mobility centre.

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Preventing further strokes

If you have had a stroke, your chances of having another one are significantly increased.

You'll usually require long-term treatment with medicines that improve the risk factors for your stroke.

For example:

  • medicine – to help lower your high blood pressure
  • anticoagulants or antiplatelets – to reduce your risk of blood clots
  • statins – to lower your cholesterol levels

You'll also be encouraged to make lifestyle changes to improve your general health and lower your stroke risk, such as:

  • eating a healthy diet
  • exercising regularly
  • stopping smoking if you smoke
  • drinking alcohol within the recommended limits

Find out more about preventing strokes

Caring for someone who's had a stroke

There are many ways you can provide support to a friend or relative who's had a stroke.

These include:

  • helping them do their physiotherapy exercises in between their sessions with the physiotherapist
  • providing emotional support and reassurance that their condition will improve with time
  • helping to motivate them to reach their long-term goals
  • adapting to any needs they may have, such as speaking slowly if they have communication problems

Caring for someone after they've had a stroke can be a frustrating and lonely experience. The advice outlined below may help.

Be prepared for changed behaviour

Someone who's had a stroke can often seem as though they have had a change in personality and appear to act irrationally at times.

This is the result of the psychological and cognitive impact of a stroke.

They may become angry or resentful towards you. Upsetting as it may be, try not to take it personally.

It's important to remember they'll often start to return to their old self as their rehabilitation and recovery progresses.

Try to remain patient and positive

Rehabilitation can be a slow and frustrating process, and there will be times when it seems as though little progress has been made.

Encouraging and praising any progress, no matter how small it may appear, can help motivate someone who's had a stroke to achieve their long-term goals.

Make time for yourself

If you're caring for someone who's had a stroke, it's important not to neglect your own physical and psychological wellbeing.

Socialising with friends or pursuing leisure interests will help you cope better with the situation.

Ask for help

There are a wide range of support services and resources available for people recovering from stroke, and their families and carers.

This ranges from equipment that can help with mobility, to psychological support for carers and families.

The hospital staff involved with the rehabilitation process can provide advice and contact information.

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