Stroke and Spasticity

Our muscles move because our brains send signals to them to move. For most of us, if we think about picking up a pen, we automatically reach out, open our fingers, and close them on the pen. We don’t think about all the signals our brain just sent to our muscles to perform such seemingly mundane movements. But when a person’s brain is damaged by a lack of oxygen due to a stroke, those movements are no longer automatic or mundane. They may become a chore, and with spasticity, seemingly impossible.

What is spasticity?

Spasticity is a common post-stroke symptom that is characterized by stiffness and rigidity in muscles due to involuntary contractions. Up to 43% of stroke survivors experience spasticity within the first year following a stroke, and it’s important to identify the symptoms as soon as possible to improve long-term outcomes.

Symptoms can range in intensity and may include:

  • Muscle spasms

  • Difficulty stretching a muscle

  • Stiffness, most commonly in the arm, hand, leg, or ankle

  • Curled toes or pointed foot

  • Curled fist and wrist

  • Arm curled in towards the chest

  • Elbow bent, arm resistant to straightening

  • Limb or hand springs back quickly into the tight position if forced to open

Spasticity can be extremely painful and can limit one’s ability to perform everyday functions. It may become difficult to find a comfortable position and make it very difficult to get a good night's sleep, which can further affect mental function. Muscles can atrophy from lack of use. In extreme cases, very severe spasticity can actually cause dislocation or even broken bones.

Treating Spasticity

Spasticity needs to be treated actively to improve the patient’s condition, decrease pain, increase movement, and prevent long-term disability from the condition. There are a number of treatments, and often several are utilized simultaneously. They include:

  • Physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, and regular exercise

  • Braces, taping, or casting to provide a sustained stretch of the spastic muscles and improved function

  • Functional electrical stimulation/neuromuscular electrical stimulations (NMES) or vibrations to shock the affected muscles, activating nerves and causing more movement during therapy

  • Injection of botox to relax muscles

  • Oral medication or intrathecal baclofen therapy (ITB), consisting of a small pump surgically implanted to supply baclofen directly to the spinal cord

It’s very important to inform your health team if you’re experiencing contractions, spasms, or stiffness of muscles following a stroke. Fast action can limit long-term effects and improve your standard of living.

It’s also very important to remain vigilant about the signs of another stroke, which occurs in 25% of stroke patients. Avoiding risk factors for stroke, remaining ever watchful for stroke signs, and wearing a Neuralert stroke detection wristband can help keep you safe. Quick treatment decreases the severity of the effects of a stroke, and the Neuralert wristband incorporates state-of-the-art AI technology with a smart wristband that can signal medical professionals when the most common sign of stroke – asymmetrical arm movement – first appears. Ask your healthcare team about adding Neuralert to your stroke recovery and prevention plan.