It was March 15, 2010, the day before her 45th birthday. This couldn’t be happening, she thought. She was too young and much too fit. “I still kept thinking, ‘I’m not having a stroke,’ ” she recalled.
She was wrong. At the hospital, emergency room physicians cleared the clot from her brain, but the damage had been done. When Brott was left with little strength on her left side despite physical therapy, she faced a long, difficult future in a body compromised by a disease of the elderly — until she decided to take control of her own recovery by returning to the gym.
Researchers are learning that exercise can help younger stroke victims such as Brott regain function, even years after they are stricken. A widely cited 2011 study provides support for therapeutic approaches like the one Brott stumbled upon when she returned to the gym.
“The secret to recovery in stroke is to continue working on your balance, continue working on your upper extremities, continue working on your lower extremities,” said Pamela W. Duncan, a neurology professor at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, N.C., and co-leader of the Locomotor Experience Applied Post-Stroke (LEAPS) research project.
The LEAPS researchers had originally set out to determine whether supporting stroke victims in harnesses to help them walk on treadmills would improve mobility more effectively than structured physical therapy at home, assisted by a therapist.
But when they tested 408 stroke survivors, a large number for such a study, Duncan and her colleagues unexpectedly discovered that the harness and treadmill produced approximately the same results as the structured at-home therapy. Perhaps more interesting was another finding: A group of patients whose therapy was delayed for the purpose of comparison also showed marked improvement when their therapy began.
“No matter when you start an intense, progressive program, it works,” said Katherine J. Sullivan, a neuroscientist and an associate professor of physical therapy at the University of Southern California, who led the LEAPS study with Duncan.
This is good news for stroke survivors, because delays in rehabilitation are inevitable for some who must be stabilized medically before they can attempt even minimal exercise.
“Rehabilitation can have some impact even months to years after a stroke,” said Ralph Sacco, past president of the American Heart Association-American Stroke Association.
“The brain can relearn and recover. Physical activity can open up some new pathways.”