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Preparing for the coming increase in stroke and physical therapy patients

August 20, 2019
By Dr. Eric Dusseux

Stroke is one of the world’s most prevalent health issues, affecting 15 million people worldwide every year. The risk of suffering stroke begins increasing exponentially at age 60 and almost 75% of all strokes occur in people aged 65 or older, making it an issue very closely associated with aging.

The baby boomers — those born between 1946 and 1964, now aged 55 to 73 — represent America’s largest generation. With the youngest members of America’s largest generation approaching age 60, the healthcare industry can expect a sustained wave of stroke diagnoses and patients.

A high volume of stroke patients means a high demand for physical therapy, since stroke leaves many patients temporarily disabled. Of the 15 million worldwide stroke cases each year, 5.8 million perish, and many who are fortunate enough to survive are left disabled or with decreased mobility, making it one of the most common causes of long-term disability.

Frequently, post-stroke disability takes the form of lost motor skills on one side of the body. This can make it difficult for survivors to walk, get dressed, shake hands or perform other seemingly-routine tasks. Thankfully, not all post-stroke disability is permanent and in many cases physical therapy can aid in restoring movement and motor function.

Physical therapy’s history and optimization
After stroke, physical therapy involves restoring strength to the affected limbs by completing various movements and exercises. Most of this is currently done by human physical therapists, which is important, since treatment can be emotional and require human-to-human support.

While traditional, human-only physical therapy typically results in the completion of 32 to 80 upper limb movements per session, artificial intelligence and robotics can complement human therapists to improve the efficiency of therapy and the value of each session of treatment.

Research in neuroscience shows that if patients are to relearn movement and restore lost motor function, their therapy requires significantly higher levels of intensity, repetition and engagement to elicit neuroplasticity (the way the brain is healing), requiring a higher frequency of movements than what most human-only therapy models can provide. Studies examining robotics in the rehabilitation of upper limbs for senior stroke survivors indicate promising results for improving therapy outcomes, lowering upper limb impairment and improving functionality.

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