Combatting the Pull of Gravity After Stroke

Stroke is one of the leading causes of death in the United States, but when stroke doesn’t claim lives, it changes them forever. Loss of blood — and, therefore, oxygen — to the brain almost always results in neurological damage. Though each patient’s symptoms are unique, loss of movement, strength, and coordination are common after stroke.

Fortunately, some of this damage can be undone. After stroke, rehabilitation is the most important factor in determining long-term outcomes. Patients may regain independence by retraining their brains and bodies, and many experts are now trained to help them do just that. There is one inescapable force that is always working against them: gravity.

Gravity: A Stroke Recovery’s Worst Enemy

Understanding the Physical Effects of Stroke

Movement problems after stroke always affect the body parts that are controlled by the damaged part of the brain. For example, if the left side of the brain is damaged, the right side of the body may lose muscle strength, movement, or range of motion. Some patients also experience painful muscle spasms or paralysis.

After stroke, rehabilitation exercises help reduce muscle weakness and prevent stiffness. Maintaining activity and stimulation prevents tendons from shortening or tightening, so that patients can eventually create new neural connections with unaffected brain cells. If muscles are unused and become tense or lose strength, patients cannot perform the exercises that may eventually restore grip and sensation.

Combatting the Pull of Gravity After Stroke

Gravity keeps your feet on the floor and our planet in the solar system, but it also makes recovery more difficult for stroke survivors. That’s because gravity is a constant force pulling on our muscles, and patients who lack muscle strength cannot always counteract this force, especially to lift heavier body parts like legs and arms.

After stroke, muscles in one arm or leg may be much weaker. Patients also often experience a sensation of heaviness, making it more difficult to use their hands and interact with their environments. Gravity is responsible for turning mass into weight, and the weight of a patient’s own body can be their biggest roadblock after stroke.

Gravity also sends conflicting signals to a recovering body, and these signals may affect posture after a stroke. Because calf and spine muscles usually “fight” gravity to maintain your posture, gravitational pull tells these muscles to continue fighting and stay strong enough to support you. When you don’t use these muscles due to weakness, they lose a lot of mass because they “assume” you don’t need as much support anymore.

Overcoming Immobility With Zero-Gravity Technology

If gravity makes it more difficult to keep weak muscles active, should stroke survivors begin flying in droves to outer space? Well, some machines actually simulate the effects of doing just that. A variety of machines and rehabilitation equipment can create zero-gravity conditions for recovering patients, taking the extra weight off their limbs and making it easier to start developing them again.

For example, the ZeroG system includes a harness and lifting mechanism that alleviates some or all of a patient’s body weight, making it easier for their weak leg muscles to relearn walking, standing, sitting, and other basic tasks and functions. Unlike treadmills that require some amount of stability, strength, and coordination to use, this machine actually lets patients with little to no strength start redeveloping it.

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