Recovering from Stroke – How Long Does It Normally Take?

Stroke RecoveryRecovering from stroke varies with each individual because every stroke is different. One of the questions I had when Steve had a stroke was, “How long will it take for him to recover?” The answer was always, “I don’t know.” I thought the doctors, nurses and therapists were trying to hide something from me because they were being so evasive. But then I met other stroke survivors, and although there were some similarities in the way the stroke affected them, there were differences in each one of them, which resulted in variables in their recovery process too. According to the American Stroke Association, over 780,000 Americans suffer a stroke annually, and there could be 780,000 variations of stroke.

Steve made very good progress in the beginning when he was recovering from stroke. In fact, he made the most progress in the last two days before he was discharged from the hospital where he was a patient for 6 weeks in the rehabilitation unit. He started out by not being able to sit by himself without falling over. The stroke affected his core balance, and it was like teaching a baby how to sit up by himself. It took four therapists to help him stand up in this video of his first therapy session a few days after the stroke. You can see that he still has a feeding tube in because his swallowing reflex was greatly affected. His swallowing improved as time went on, but while he was in the hospital he was given pureed food until that reflex improved. By the time Steve left the hospital, he was eating a normal, but low-salt diet.

He was extremely tired while recovering from his stroke. This is quite common in stroke survivors, and you should not be alarmed if your loved one is experiencing the same thing. Their injured brain needs sleep to heal. Sometimes Steve slept so much that he had difficulty making it through his therapy sessions.

For several weeks his therapists worked on his balance and on the muscles in his arm and leg that weren’t responding. They didn’t want them to freeze up, so they were stretched every day as he lay in bed. His leg wasn’t completely paralyzed as his arm was, but it was very, very weak, and he couldn’t move his foot or toes at all. After his core balance was reestablished, he learned how to walk again. That was about 3-4 weeks into his stroke recovery.

Steve’s case was complicated by a broken ankle that he broke three weeks before the stroke. It was on the weak, left leg, so that made it more painful to stand on. It could have been worse. He could have broken the right ankle instead, then he wouldn’t be able to stand at all. But as a result of the broken ankle, he had to wear a heavy air cast which made walking more difficult. That was changed later to a brace to correct foot drop. These things hindered him from recovering from stroke at a faster pace.

When Steve left the hospital, he was admitted to a nursing home for two months to continue his stroke recovery. However, the therapists there were not as aggressive, nor as skilled in treating patients recovering from stroke. When he left there, he was able to come home. He learned to climb steps, grasp the fingers of his left hand and move his arm, get in and out of bed, and use the bathroom by himself. He continued with home health care and outpatient therapy for several months. From there we went to the Cerebral Palsy Aquatic Center for water therapy.

He’s had many setbacks with different things hindering him recovering from stroke. They included ankle pain, cellulitis in his eyes contracted while he was in the hospital; shoulder subluxation; flu while he was in the nursing home; pneumonia from ingesting a small peel of a nectarine into his lung; three seizures; depression and lack of motivation; congestive heart failure, atrial fibrillation, among other ailments.

At this writing, two years after the stroke, Steve is progressing, but at a slower rate. He is discouraged by the slow progress and wants to give up at times. Pain seems to be a constant companion, mostly in his left shoulder, leg and ankle. The seizures have affected his motivation and drive to get better, so he needs constant encouragement and hope.

In most cases people do get better. The effects of a stroke are greatest immediately after the stroke occurs. From then on, the speed and pace for recovering from stroke depends on the extent of the brain injury, the success of rehabilitation and the determination of the stroke survivor. The most improvement in recovery is made within 18-24 months after the stroke, so time is of the essence. However, even though the recovery process may slow down, good progress can be made for many years with continued efforts as the brain rewires itself.

Finding a Good Therapist

Good therapy will greatly help in stroke recovery, but not all therapists are the same. Try to find a rehab center which specializes in stroke therapy. We once had a physical therapist fill in for our regular home health therapist, and within 5 minutes we could tell that she had the expertise we needed. She referred us to the correct facility.

If your therapist is just so-so, keep looking, keep asking questions, talk to other stroke survivors, consult with your doctor, call other agencies, go to a cerebral palsy center and ask for referrals. Did you know that cerebral palsy is often caused by a stroke at birth or in the womb? Your local CP center will be a great source of information for you. Don’t give up and don’t settle for anything less than the best. The most improvement in recovery is made within 18-24 months after the stroke, so time is of the essence. However, even though the recovery process may slow down, good progress can be made for many years with continued efforts as the brain rewires itself.

The American Physical Therapy Association represents more than 73,000 physical therapists nationwide. Its goal is to foster advancements in physical therapist education, practice and research. You can access “Find a PT” to find a physical therapist in your area at

Stroke Risk Factors

There are some stroke risk factors that you can change or treat. Others you cannot. As the old addage says, “An ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure.” Knowing your risk factors can be the key to prevention. Focus on the factors you can change and you lower your risk for a stroke. Before my husband’s stroke, he had most of the risk factors that he could change, but he chose not to. It’s still not too late for him to reduce his risk factors to prevent further strokes.

Stroke Risk Factors

Factors you can change or treat:

High Blood Pressure – This is the most important risk factor, so i’s important that you know your blood pressure. Blood pressure is given in two numbers, for example 120/80. The first number (systolic) is a measurement of the force your blood exerts on blood vessel walls as your heart pumps. The second number (diastolic) is the measurement of the force your blood exerts on blood vessel walls when your heart is at rest between beats. Blood pressure that is consistently higher than 120/80 can lead to hypertension (high blood pressure). Blood pressure can be controlled with medication, diet and exercise.

Tobacco Use – Smoking of tobacco (cigarettes, pipe, cigar) is a leading cause of artery disease. Tobacco contains chemicals that constrict (narrow) the arteries and causes plaque build-up, making a blood clot more likely.

High Cholesterol – High blood cholesterol increases the risk of clogged arteries. If an artery leading to the brain becomes blocked, a stroke occurs.

Diabetes – Having diabetes increases your risk so it’s important that you work closely with your doctor to manage it. If you have diabetes, make sure your blood glucose level is below 126 mg/dL, modify your diet and never stop taking your medication without talking to your doctor first.

Physical Inactivity & Obesity – Being inactive and/or obese can increase your risk of high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, diabetes, heart disease and stroke. Try to get at least a total of 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity on most days.

Poor Diet – Diets high in salt can contribute to increased blood pressure, and high caloric diets can contribute to obesity. Diets high in saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterol can raise blood cholesterol levels. A diet with five or more servings of fruits and vegetables per day may reduce the risk of stroke.

Excessive Alcohol – An average of more than one a day for women or two drinks a day for men raises blood pressure and can lead to stroke.

Illegal Drugs – Intravenous drug abuse carries a high risk of stroke from cerebral embolism (a clot or other particle that lodges in the brain). Cocaine use has been linked to strokes and heart attacks. Some have bedn fatal even in first time users.

Other risk factors:

Carotid or Artery Disease – This disease affects the arteries throughout the body which become damaged by a fatty buildup of plaque inside the artery wall. The carotid arteries in the neck supply blood to the brain, and if one of them becomes blocked by a blood clot, it causes a stroke. People with peripheral artery disease (PAD) have a higher risk of stroke.

Transient Ischemic Attacks (TIAs) – These are “mini strokes” that produce stroke-like symptoms but have no lasting effects. Most TIAs are warning signs of an impending major stroke, so prompt treatment can greatly reduce risk of stroke.

Atrial Fibrillation or other Heart Disease – Atrial fibrillation (AF) is an important, treatable stroke risk factor. In AF, the heart’s upper chambers quiver instead of beating effectively. This lets the blood pool and clot. If a clot breaks off, enters the blood stream and lodges in an artery supplying blood to a part of the brain, a stroke results..

Risk factors you cannot change:

  • Your Age – the older you are, the higher your risk
  • Being a man
  • Being African American
  • Someone in your family has had a stroke