Scientists are challenging long-held beliefs about stroke recovery and have used horse riding to prove that a survivor can achieve both physical and mental improvements long after the initial medical emergency.
A Swedish study, led by Australian-based Professor Michael Nilsson at the Hunter Medical Research Institute, found horse riding and rhythm-and-music therapies improved a patient’s perception of recovery as well as their gait, balance, grip strength and cognition five years after their stroke.
Prof Nilsson said ‘‘frustratingly’’ there was a general view that stroke patients could not achieve significant improvements after 12 months.
He said what this study did was add to a growing body of evidence that the brain is like ‘‘plastic’’ and had the capacity to change itself over long periods of time, even in stroke survivors.
‘‘That’s why I’m so excited because we have proven now over and over that the brain has the capacity to change itself, develop new skills and find ways after damage that’s not utilised in the current system.’’
Researchers studied 123 Swedish men and women aged 50 to 75 who had suffered strokes between 10 months and five years earlier.
Trial participants were randomly assigned to rhythm-and-music therapy, horse- riding therapy or ordinary care, with the therapies given twice a week for 12 weeks.
Of those who experienced an increased perception of recovery, 56 per cent were in the horse-riding group, 38 per cent in the rhythm-and-music group, and 17 per cent in the control group.
Prof Nilsson said he was surprised by the sustained effects after only 12 weeks of these non-pharmaceutical interventions.
‘‘Relatively speaking, it’s a moderate type of intervention, so if you had increased the intensity or maybe extended it they could have potentially gained even more improvement.’’
It’s thought the multi-sensory nature of the activities stimulates the brain which then translates into physical recovery.
‘‘The combination of social, physical, cognitive challenges and stimulation adds together in a form of synergy to stimulate the brain,’’ Prof Nilsson said.
The horse’s back created a sensory experience that closely resembled normal human gait and was beneficial for stroke survivors, he said.
In rhythm-and-music therapy, patients perform cognitively demanding hand and feet movements to visual and audio cues.
The researchers found this activity, particularly, helped survivors with balance, grip-strength and working memory.
In Australia, there are up to 60000 new cases of stroke every year and there are somewhere between 350000 and 500000 survivors.