To investigate the therapeutic interventions reported in the research literature and synthesize their effectiveness in improving upper limb (UL) function in the first 4 weeks poststroke.
CHAPTER 40: Optimizing motor performance and sensation after brain impairment
This chapter provides a framework for optimizing motor performance and sensation in adults with brain impairment. Conditions such as stroke and traumatic brain injury are the main focus, however, the chapter content can apply to adults with other neurological conditions. The tasks of eating and drinking are used as examples throughout the chapter. Skills and knowledge required by graduates are identified, including knowledge of motor behaviour, the essential components of reaching to grasp and reaching in sitting, and how to identify compensatory strategies, develop and test movement hypotheses. Factors that enhance skill acquisition are discussed, including task specificity, practice intensity and timely feedback, with implications for therapists’ teaching skills. Finally, a summary is provided of evidence-based interventions to improve motor performance and sensation, including high intensity, task-specific training, mirror therapy, mental practice, electrical stimulation and constraint therapy.
Abnormal motor performance can be observed during a task such as reaching for a cup, and compared with expected performance. Hypotheses about the cause(s) of observed movement differences can then be made and tested.
Paralysis, weakness and loss of co-ordination affect upper limb motor performance. To improve performance after brain impairment, therapists should primarily focus on improving strength and co-ordination.
Many people with brain impairment have difficulty understanding instructions, goals and feedback, and consequently may not practice well. To teach people to practice well and learn skills, therapists need to be good coaches.
Motor performance and sensation can be improved using low-cost evidence-based strategies such as high intensity, repetitive, task-specific training, mirror therapy, mental practice, electrical stimulation and constraint-induced movement therapy.
Upper motor neuron lesions typically cause impairments such as paralysis, muscle weakness and loss of sensation. These impairments can limit participation in everyday tasks such as eating a meal. Motor control is a term commonly used in rehabilitation (Shumway-Cook, 2012; van Vliet et al 2013) and refers to control of movements such as reaching to grasp a cup and standing up. Occupational therapists and physiotherapists retrain motor and sensory impairments that interfere with tasks such as grasping a cup and sitting safely on the toilet.
The aim of this chapter is to provide a framework that helps therapists to systematically observe, analyse and measure motor and sensory impairments. Targeted evidence-based interventions will be described that can drive neuroplasticity. Therapists need to proactively seek muscle activity and sensation. It is not enough to teach a person how to compensate using one-handed techniques, or to wait for recovery to possibly occur.[…]
Motor function may be enhanced if aerobic exercise is paired with motor training. One potential mechanism is that aerobic exercise increases levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which is important in neuroplasticity and involved in motor learning and motor memory consolidation. This study will examine the feasibility of a parallel-group assessor-blinded randomised controlled trial investigating whether task-specific training preceded by aerobic exercise improves upper limb function more than task-specific training alone, and determine the effect size of changes in primary outcome measures. People with upper limb motor dysfunction after stroke will be allocated to either task-specific training or aerobic exercise and consecutive task-specific training. Both groups will perform 60 hours of task-specific training over 10 weeks, comprised of 3 × 1 hour sessions per week with a therapist and 3 × 1 hours of home-based self-practice per week. The combined intervention group will also perform 30 minutes of aerobic exercise (70–85%HRmax) immediately prior to the 1 hour of task-specific training with the therapist. Recruitment, adherence, retention, participant acceptability, and adverse events will be recorded. Clinical outcome measures will be performed pre-randomisation at baseline, at completion of the training program, and at 1 and 6 months follow-up. Primary clinical outcome measures will be the Action Research Arm Test (ARAT) and the Wolf Motor Function Test (WMFT). If aerobic exercise prior to task-specific training is acceptable, and a future phase 3 randomised controlled trial seems feasible, it should be pursued to determine the efficacy of this combined intervention for people after stroke.
Currently 440,000 persons after stroke live in community settings in Australia . Many with stroke experience chronic disability and although two-thirds receive care each day , the majority still have unmet needs . Upper limb dysfunction is a persistent and disabling problem present in 69% of persons after stroke in Australia . Upper limb dysfunction is a major contributor to poor well-being and quality-of-life ; ;  ; . Unsurprisingly, advancing treatments for upper limb recovery is a top ten research priority for persons after stroke and their carers .
In Australia, 87% of persons with stroke-attributable upper limb impairments receive task-specific training . Task-specific training is a progressive training strategy that utilises practice of goal-directed, real-world, context-specific tasks that are intrinsically and/or extrinsically meaningful to the person, to enable them to undertake activities of daily living  and may improve upper limb motor function after stroke ;  ; .
Improvements in motor function coincide with structural and functional reorganisation of the brain ; ;  ; . The brain’s ability to undergo these changes is denoted as neuroplasticity. Capitalisation and enhancement of neuroplasticity in peri-infarct and non-primary motor regions may promote recovery via an increased response to motor training and other neurorehabilitative interventions ;  ; .
Many studies show that aerobic exercise (prolonged, rhythmical activity using large muscle groups to increase heart rate) enhances neuroplasticity , grey matter volume, white matter integrity ;  ;  and brain activation ;  ; . Furthermore increasing evidence indicates that lower limb aerobic exercise increases upper limb motor function. A single bout of aerobic cycling exercise can improve long-term retention of a motor skill in healthy individuals , regardless of whether performed immediately before or after motor training .
Aerobic exercise increases BDNF . Improvements in motor skill learning and memory induced by aerobic exercise have been associated with increased peripheral blood concentrations of BDNF . BDNF is involved with neurogenesis  and neuroprotection  in the human brain , thereby playing an important role in stroke recovery, including facilitating functional upper limb motor rehabilitation .
In chronic stroke, an 8-week programme of lower extremity endurance cycling enhanced upper extremity fine motor control . Also, a single bout of aerobic treadmill exercise improved grasp function of the hemiparetic hand . As aerobic exercise alone can enhance motor function after stroke, motor learning in stroke rehabilitation may be facilitated if aerobic exercise is paired with motor training  ; .
The aims of this study are to 1) assess the feasibility of conducting a randomised controlled trial to compare the effects of task-specific training preceded by aerobic exercise to task-specific training alone on upper limb motor function after stroke; and 2) calculate the effect size of changes in primary clinical outcome measures to evaluate proof-of-concept and inform calculation of sample size for a future phase III trial. This includes investigating potential neural correlates of exercise-induced motor function changes using peripheral blood serum BDNF measurement and multi-modal MRI.
This is a parallel-group assessor-blinded randomised controlled pilot study (Fig. 1). One group will undertake task-specific training alone and the other group will undertake 30 minutes of aerobic cycling exercise prior to their task-specific training. The interventions will be delivered by a therapist 3 days per week for 10 weeks. Both groups will be provided with an individually-prescribed task-specific training programme to practice at home for 60 minutes, 3 times per week. Assessments will be conducted at baseline, within 1 week from the end of intervention, and 1 and 6 months following the end of the intervention period. Ethics approval has been obtained from the Hunter New England Human Research Ethics Committee (14/12/10/4.07) and registered with the University of Newcastle Human Research Ethics Committee (H-2015-0105). The study is registered with the Australian and New Zealand Clinical Trials Registry (ACTRN12616000848404).
Background and Purpose: This case study describes a task-specific training program for gait walking and functional recovery in a young man with severe chronic traumatic brain injury.
Case Description: The individual was a 26-year-old man 4 years post–traumatic brain injury with severe motor impairments who had not walked outside of therapy since his injury. He had received extensive gait training prior to initiation of services. His goal was to recover the ability to walk.
Intervention: The primary focus of the interventions was the restoration of walking. A variety of interventions were used, including locomotor treadmill training, electrical stimulation, orthoses, and specialized assistive devices. A total of 79 treatments were delivered over a period of 62 weeks.
Outcomes: At the conclusion of therapy, the client was able to walk independently with a gait trainer for approximately 1km (over 3000 ft) and walked in the community with the assistance of his mother using a rocker bottom crutch for distances of 100m (330 ft).
Discussion: Specific interventions were intentionally selected in the development of the treatment plan. The program emphasized structured practice of the salient task, that is, walking, with adequate intensity and frequency. Given the chronicity of this individual’s injury, the magnitude of his functional improvements was unexpected.
Video Abstract available for additional insights from the Authors (see Video, Supplemental Digital Content 1, available at: http://links.lww.com/JNPT/A175).
Each year at least 1.7 million traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) occur in the United States, which cost an estimated $76.5 billion.1 In addition, 43% of persons discharged home after hospitalization develop long-term disability.1 The sequelae of a TBI can include motor, cognitive, behavioral, and emotional dysfunctions.2 The resulting motor impairments can impact a person’s independence and participation in his or her life roles.3
Independent gait is a common therapy goal for most individuals post–brain injury. In one study, 73.3% of persons achieved independent gait by 5 months postinjury.4 It is interesting that gait recovery occurred early, suggesting that recovery of independent gait more than 3 to 4 months after injury is much less likely.4 Impairments of gait after TBI are common, including decreased velocity, step length, altered stance and swing times, and varied kinematics.5 The inability of a person post-TBI to traverse his environment using upright mobility can limit performance of basic care skills. One study estimated that approximately 33% of individuals post-TBI required assistance with at least 2 activities of daily living (ADLs).6 This high level of dependence places an extraordinary burden on caregivers.7
There is not a consensus on best practice for gait recovery after TBI.8 Although it is generally understood that early intervention creates the best environment for promoting neuroplasticity,9 addressing gait recovery after TBI is often complicated and delayed by musculoskeletal and internal injuries and by altered levels of consciousness.4,10 There is limited and conflicting literature to support the use of locomotor treadmill training (LTT) as a gait training method. There have been 2 randomized controlled trials comparing LTT with conventional gait training and neither found LTT to be superior.11,12 A third study compared manually assisted LTT with robotic-assisted LTT and found gait improvements in persons with chronic TBI with both interventions.13 In addition to these 3 research articles, there have been 3 case series/studies, Seif-Naraghi and Herman14 reported on 2 individuals in which LTT improved ambulatory independence. Likewise, Wilson and Swaboda15 found improvements in gait using LTT with 2 individuals. Scherer16 used LTT with an individual 7 months post-TBI and saw improvements in gait.
Beyond LTT, there is limited evidence to support the use of other interventions for improving gait in persons with TBI. One study found functional electrical stimulation (FES) to be successful for gait recovery with a patient with a chronic TBI when many other interventions had failed.17 There is, however, stronger evidence for the use of FES in other populations. A systematic review found a modest benefit of FES for strengthening in persons with stroke.18 Functional electrical stimulation–assisted gait has been studied in the spinal cord injury population with good outcomes.19–21
Considering the prevalence of TBI and the associated costs, it is critical to explore viable treatment options for recovery of function, especially gait. It is particularly critical to consider treatment options for the growing number of individuals with chronic TBI, many of whom have poor gait prognosis.4 Despite the limited TBI-specific evidence available to guide treatment planning, there is a substantial body of motor learning research available to guide the development of effective treatment plans.9,22–26 Critical to these plans are elements such as salience, intensity, repetition, and task specificity. This case study details a comprehensive outpatient treatment program, which included LTT and FES, as well as other interventions, for a 26-year-old man with a severe chronic TBI after a motor vehicle accident. […]
OBJECTIVE. To determine the impact of transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) combined with repetitive, task-specific training (RTP) on upper-extremity (UE) impairment in a chronic stroke survivor with moderate impairment.
METHOD. The participant was a 54-yr-old woman with chronic, moderate UE hemiparesis after a single stroke that had occurred 10 yr before study enrollment. She participated in 45-min RTP sessions 3 days/wk for 8 wk. tDCS was administered concurrent to the first 20 min of each RTP session.
RESULTS. Immediately after intervention, the participant demonstrated marked score increases on the UE section of the Fugl–Meyer Scale and the Motor Activity Log (on both the Amount of Use and the Quality of Movement subscales).
CONCLUSION. These data support the use of tDCS combined with RTP to decrease impairment and increase UE use in chronic stroke patients with moderate impairment. This finding is crucial, given the paucity of efficacious treatment approaches in this impairment level.
Background. A common assumption is that changes in upper limb (UL) capacity, or what an individual is capable of doing, translates to improved UL performance in daily life, or what an individual actually does. This assumption should be explicitly tested for individuals with UL paresis poststroke.
Objective. To examine changes in UL performance after an intensive, individualized, progressive, task-specific UL intervention for individuals at least 6 months poststroke.
Methods. Secondary analysis on 78 individuals with UL paresis who participated in a phase II, single-blind, randomized parallel dose-response trial. Participants were enrolled in a task-specific intervention for 8 weeks. Participants were randomized into 1 of 4 treatment groups with each group completing different amounts of UL movement practice. UL performance was assessed with bilateral, wrist-worn accelerometers once a week for 24 hours throughout the duration of the study. The 6 accelerometer variables were tested for change and the influence of potential modifiers using hierarchical linear modeling.
Results. No changes in UL performance were found on any of the 6 accelerometer variables used to quantify UL performance. Neither changes in UL capacity nor the overall amount of movement practice influenced changes in UL performance. Stroke chronicity, baseline UL capacity, concordance, and ADL status significantly increased the baseline starting points but did not influence the rate of change (slopes) for participants.
Conclusions. Improved motor capacity resulting from an intensive outpatient UL intervention does not appear to translate to increased UL performance outside the clinic.
An unsettled question in the use of robotics for post-stroke gait rehabilitation is whether task-specific locomotor training is more effective than targeting individual joint impairments to improve walking function. The paretic ankle is implicated in gait instability and fall risk, but is difficult to therapeutically isolate and refractory to recovery. We hypothesize that in chronic stroke, treadmill-integrated ankle robotics training is more effective to improve gait function than robotics focused on paretic ankle impairments.
Participants with chronic hemiparetic gait were randomized to either six weeks of treadmill-integrated ankle robotics (n = 14) or dose-matched seated ankle robotics (n = 12) videogame training. Selected gait measures were collected at baseline, post-training, and six-week retention. Friedman, and Wilcoxon Sign Rank and Fisher’s exact tests evaluated within and between group differences across time, respectively. Six weeks post-training, treadmill robotics proved more effective than seated robotics to increase walking velocity, paretic single support, paretic push-off impulse, and active dorsiflexion range of motion. Treadmill robotics durably improved gait dorsiflexion swing angle leading 6/7 initially requiring ankle braces to self-discarded them, while their unassisted paretic heel-first contacts increased from 44 % to 99.6 %, versus no change in assistive device usage (0/9) following seated robotics.
Treadmill-integrated, but not seated ankle robotics training, durably improves gait biomechanics, reversing foot drop, restoring walking propulsion, and establishing safer foot landing in chronic stroke that may reduce reliance on assistive devices. These findings support a task-specific approach integrating adaptive ankle robotics with locomotor training to optimize mobility recovery.
Objective: To describe and justify the development of a home-based, task-specific upper limb training intervention to improve reach-to-grasp after stroke and pilot it for feasibility and acceptability prior to a randomised controlled trial.
Intervention description: The intervention is based on intensive practice of whole reach-to-grasp tasks and part-practice of essential reach-to-grasp components. A ‘pilot’ manual of activities covering the domains of self-care, leisure and productivity was developed for the feasibility study. The intervention comprises 14 hours of therapist-delivered sessions over 6 weeks, with additional self-practice recommended for 42 hours (i.e. 1 hour every day). As part of a feasibility randomised controlled trial, 24 people with a wide range of upper limb impairment after stroke experienced the intervention to test adherence and acceptability. The median number of repetitions in 1-hour therapist-delivered sessions was 157 (IQR: 96-211). The amount of self-practice was poorly documented. Where recorded, median amount of practice was 30 minutes (IQR: 22-45) per day. Findings demonstrated that the majority of participants found the intensity, content and level of difficulty of the intervention acceptable, and the programme to be beneficial. Comments on the content and presentation of the self-practice material were incorporated in a revised ‘final’ intervention manual.
Discussion: A comprehensive training intervention to improve reach-to-grasp for people living at home after stroke has been described in accordance with the TIDieR reporting guidelines. The intervention has been piloted, found to be acceptable and feasible in the home setting.
Background. Although functional task-specific training is a viable approach for upper extremity neurorehabilitation, its appropriateness for older populations is unclear. If task-specific training is to be prescribed to older adults, it must be efficacious and feasible, even in patients with cognitive decline due to advancing age.
Objective. This cross-sectional study tested the efficacy and feasibility of upper extremity task-specific training in older adults, including those with lower cognitive scores.
Methods. Fifty older adults (age 65-89 years) without any confounding neuromuscular impairment were randomly assigned to a training group or no-training group. The training group completed 3 days (dosage = 2250 repetitions) of a functional upper extremity motor task (simulated feeding) with their nondominant hand; the no-training group completed no form of training at all. Both groups’ task performance (measured as trial time) was tested at pre- and posttest, and the training group was retested 1 month later. Efficacy was determined by rate, amount, and retention of training-related improvement, and compared across levels of cognitive status. Feasibility was determined by participants’ tolerance of the prescribed training dose.
Results. The training group was able to complete the training dose without adverse responses and showed a significant rate, amount, and retention of improvement compared with the no-training group. Cognitive status did not alter results, although participants with lower scores on the Montreal Cognitive Assessment were slower overall.
Conclusions. Task-specific training may be appropriate for improving upper extremity function in older adults, yet future work in older patients with specific neurological conditions is needed.