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How Do You Rehab a Hand After Stroke?

In our last post, we told you that it’s entirely possible to regain hand function after a stroke.

Rehabilitating a hand after a stroke is a journey as unique as each individual who embarks on it. In this blog, we’ll talk about the science-backed physiotherapy tips for hand function that have been proven effective in both research studies and with patients in my practice.

We’ve divided the rehabilitation of hand after a stroke into the following steps:

  1. Initial rehab (exercises of components such as fingers, grip control and wrist control)
  2. Advanced rehab (weight-bearing training and bilateral hand use)
  3. Functional rehab (task-specific training and stimulated environmental practice) 

Initial Steps for Hand Rehabilitation

Starting rehabilitation after stroke can be overwhelming. The key is to stay consistent and patient.

Hand rehabilitation at home requires setting up the right environment—one that is safe and encourages you to engage in exercises effectively. This initial phase is important for laying the foundation for successful hand recovery post-stroke. Here, we focus on exercises that promote movement, strength, and functionality.

1.   Finger Extensions and Flexions

Start by gently making a fist, ensuring each finger is bending at the knuckles. Then, slowly extend your fingers. Stretch them out as straight as possible. This exercise works on improving the range of motion and flexibility which are essential for regaining strength and function in the hand.

Scientific Basis: Regular practice of these movements can enhance motor recovery quickly by stimulating the brain’s neuroplasticity (it’s the brain’s ability to create new pathways and rewire itself). That way, the brain begins to re-establish the neural connections lost due to stroke. The exercise also improves both flexor and extensor muscle strength in the hand.

2.   Grip Strengthening and Object Manipulation

Hold a soft ball or a grip strengthener and gently squeeze with your fingers. Hold this for 3-5 seconds before releasing. Repeat this exercise to build grip strength and fine motor control, which is essential for holding objects.

Practice picking up various objects of different sizes and textures, such as marbles, beans, or pens. You can move them from box A to box B or make a tower. This exercise focuses on improving fine motor skills, dexterity (skill or quickness in using your hands), and sensory feedback.

Scientific Basis: Grip training exercises can promote muscle activation and hand strength in stroke survivors.

According to studies, these exercises can significantly improve your handgrip, functional outcomes and remarkably cognition. That’s possible through stimulating muscle fibres and enhancing neural drive in the muscles affected by a stroke.

Object manipulation exercises retrain fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination. Research shows that tasks requiring precise finger movements and manipulation can lead to improvements in hand function by promoting sensory-motor integration and feedback for movement accuracy.

3.   Functional Electrical Stimulation (FES)

FES is a therapeutic technique where low-energy electrical pulses are applied to weakened or paralyzed muscles to promote their contraction.

We place electrodes on the skin over the affected hand and forearm muscles. We can adjust the intensity, frequency, and duration of the stimulation based on the individual’s tolerance and the specific therapeutic goals.

For hand rehabilitation after a stroke, we use FES to aid with grasping, releasing, or moving the wrist and fingers. You may be asked to try to move your hand while the stimulation is applied. That way, we merge voluntary control with the assistive function of the FES.

Scientific Basis: This technique is backed by research showing its efficacy in improving muscular function and coordination by reconnection of neural pathways and prevention of muscle wasting.

Advanced Techniques for Hand Rehabilitation

As progress continues, we integrate more sophisticated exercises to further develop hand strength, dexterity, and functionality.

1.   Weight-Bearing Wrist Extension and Flexion

Your wrist plays an important role in everyday activities. After initially focusing on finger strength, we begin exercising the wrist in later stages of your stroke rehab.

To do this exercise, place your forearm on a table with your hand hanging off the edge, palm down. Hold a light weight such as a water bottle and gently lift the hand upward, then lower it down. This exercise strengthens the wrist extensors and flexors.

Scientific Basis: Such weight-bearing activities can enhance muscle power, proprioception (awareness of the wrist’s position in space), joint stability and muscular endurance.

2.   Pinch Strength Training

The precision grip is vital for picking up and holding small or thin objects and tasks such as while writing or buttoning. Practice pinching small objects between the thumb and each finger without letting them fall. Then, progress to pinching and lifting objects of various sizes and weights.

Scientific Basis: Similar to other exercises for hand recovery after stroke, pinch strength training works on fine motor skills, neural control, and muscle activation specific to grip functions.

3.   Bilateral Hand Use Activities

Nearly all of your everyday activities require good coordination between both your hands. We train bilateral hand control by practising transferring objects from one hand to the other, opening jars, or using lightweight tools.

These activities not only improve your hand strength and coordination but also encourage the hands to work in tandem. It promotes balance and symmetry in motor skills.

Scientific Basis: Many good-quality studies found that engaging both hands encourages cross-communication between your two brain hemispheres, which improves motor skills and bilateral hand function.

Incorporating Functional Activities Into Rehabilitation

Transitioning your gains from exercises into practical life is part of the final stages of comprehensive hand rehabilitation programs.

1.   Task-Specific Training

We help you engage in task-specific training that focuses on practical tasks such as buttoning a shirt, using cutlery, or typing on a keyboard. You should focus on repetitive practice of tasks that are relevant to your daily living and recovery goals. You can gradually increase complexity to enhance hand functionality in real-life scenarios.

Scientific Basis: The concept of neuroplasticity is the reason why these exercises are so effective for recovery. Task-specific training ensures that improvements in hand function are directly applicable to everyday activities.

Our patients love these exercises (and we see great engagement at this stage) because they enhance the rehabilitation process’s relevance and effectiveness.

2.   Simulated Environmental Practice

We create a simulated environment that replicates your everyday scenarios. For example, setting a table or preparing a simple meal. This practice allows you to integrate hand exercises into functional, meaningful activities that require a combination of movements and cognitive tasks.

Scientific Basis: Simulated environmental practice helps develop skills within the context they are used. Studies have shown that practising tasks in a realistic setting can improve cognitive-motor integration.

That can lead to better generalisation of skills to daily life. This method helps bridge the gap between controlled therapeutic exercises and the complex, varied demands of real-world activities. It allows for a more holistic recovery and promotes independence.

Isn’t that the ultimate goal?

3.   Use of Assistive Devices and Adaptations

We help you incorporate assistive devices into your routine. We also make adaptations to your home or work environments to help you complete tasks during your recovery.

This can include using adapted cutlery, key holders, or grip aids to ease tasks while strength and dexterity continue to improve.

We do this to encourage the maximum functional use of your hand. At Clearcut Physiotherapy clinics in London, we train you using new tech and assistive tools to speed up your recovery.

Assistive devices can compensate for deficits while maximising residual function. This can reduce the cognitive and physical load of tasks and allow you to take part in meaningful activities despite impairments.

I’ve seen it enhance quality of life post-stroke and that’s why I encourage its use in clinics and home physiotherapy for stroke rehab.

Summary: How Do You Rehabilitate a Hand After a Stroke?

Hand rehabilitation after a stroke is a multifaceted process.

We use targeted exercises and techniques that evolve from basic to advanced, each supported by scientific evidence to help you regain hand control after stroke. The goal is to regain as much function as possible, making the transition from therapeutic exercises to practical, everyday activities.

With patience, perseverance, and the right guidance, you can achieve significant improvements in hand function.

If you need help with hand recovery after stroke, visit us in our clinics in Southeast and Southwest London, particularly in Eltham, Battersea, Norbury and Woolwich.