Stroke Recovery: Arm Exercises for Stroke Patients

June 15, 2023
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Every year, more than 795,000 people in the United States have a stroke. While every stroke is unique, they tend to affect people in common ways.

According to Michelle Lantaigne, OTR/L, an occupational therapist with Baystate Rehabilitation Center, “For many people, a stroke affects their ability to use their arm and hand in the same way they did prior to the stroke.”

Referred to as deficits, these changes may include:

  • Weakness in the arm
  • Decreased sensation
  • Decreased coordination
  • Decreased muscle control
  • Abnormal tone or spasticity
  • Pain

These deficits can make it difficult for individuals to perform basic daily tasks such as dressing, eating, grooming, bathing and more. Lantaigne says, “So much of our daily living involves using our arms. When their mobility becomes limited due to stroke or other reasons, everything from brushing your hair, buttoning a shirt, pushing yourself to a stand from a seated position, and even pouring a bowl of cereal becomes challenging, if not impossible. That’s where occupational therapy comes into play.”

Restoring function and independence through occupational therapy

Occupational therapy (OT) focuses exclusively on the activities of daily living. By restoring strength, range of motion, and coordination, OT enables people to reclaim their independence and resume many, if not all, of the essential activities required of daily living as well as activities that bring joy to their life.

OT also works to help patients address “learned disuse.” Lantaigne explains, “Very often after a stroke, people adopt adaptive behaviors that allow them to complete activities by not using their affected arm. They might learn to eat with their opposite hand or even manage to eke out a signature with their left hand. While this does help restore independence, it can further deteriorate the functionality of the affected side. In some cases, this can progress to the point of effectively paralyzing the limb. One of the goals of OT is to make sure that doesn’t happen and to restore the balance of strength and functionality between both arms.”

Arm exercises you can do at home

For stroke survivors looking to improve their arm movement, working with an OT is a must. But, as Lantaigne notes, “Doing simple exercises at home in addition to structured OT sessions can help maximize your recovery.” Below are several exercises for all ability levels that can safely be done at home.

Lantaigne explains, “Because a lot of the function in our hands and arms begins in the shoulders, a number of these exercises focus on waking up and strengthening those muscles. They then progress down the arm to focus on the elbows, forearms, and hands. It’s important to work through them all to receive the maximum benefit of how they work in combination to rebuild coordination, agility, and strength from the shoulder all the way to the fingertips.”

Shoulder shrugging

Start by sitting with your feet flat on the floor, ideally in a chair with back support. Next, shrug your shoulders up to your ears, and count 1-2, then release your shoulders down to their natural starting position. Repeat 10 times.

TIP: If you have a weak arm, hold it with your good arm and give if a bit of an assist to complete the shrug but make sure the affected side is doing some of the work so that strength is regained.

Shoulder blade squeeze

Start by sitting up tall and squeezing your shoulder blades back and together. Hold for 2 seconds then relax. Repeat 10 times.

TIP: As you squeeze, keep your elbows close to your sides. Be sure to relax your arms as you release your shoulder blades.

Table and towel reach

Begin seated and facing a table. Place a washcloth or folded towel on the table directly in front of you. Place your right hand on top of the towel. Next, push down slightly and reach forward, letting the towel slide forward as you reach with a straightened elbow and lean forward. Reach as far as you comfortably can then slide the towel back and return to the starting seated position. Repeat 10 times.

TIP: If you need to, you can use both hands—one placed on top of the other—to complete the move until you’ve gained the strength to do it with one arm.

ALERNATE MOVE: If this exercise proves too difficult, you can work the same range of motion by clasping your hands together in front of you at hip level. Next, raise your hands to shoulder height, leaning forward slightly as you do it. Then relax and drop your hands to the starting position. Repeat 10 times.

Seated chest press

This exercise requires a cane, mop handle or other dowel-like item. With your hands spaced to shoulder width, grip the cane, and extend it straight in front of you. Next, bring the cane to your chest, dropping your elbows as you draw it in, then press it straight out in front of you, extending your elbows as you do so. Repeat 10 times.

Bicep curl

This exercise requires a cane, mop handle or other dowel-like item. Using an underhand grip (palms face up), hold the cane with your hands shoulder-width apart, with your arms extended straight down. Next, without lifting your elbows away from your side, bring the cane up and towards your chest by bending your elbows. Then straighten your arms to bring the cane back to the starting position. Repeat 10 times.

Washcloth squeeze and scrunch

Fully open a washcloth on flat surface. Place your hand palm down on top of it with your fingers spread in an open position. Use your fingers scrunch up and draw the washcloth into your palm. Once it’s gathered, use your fingers and hand to it push open while focusing on extending your fingers. Repeat 10 times.

Washcloth roll and squeeze

Fold a washcloth in half and roll it up. Pick up the rolled cloth with your affected hand and squeeze it firmly using all your fingers and thumb. Relax and repeat 10 times.

TIP: To make this harder, fill a bowl with water. Dip the washcloth in the water with your affected hand, lift it out and squeeze the water out over the bowl or a sink.

Cup flip

Line up five paper or plastic cups on a table or countertop. Grasp the first cup, pick it up, turn it over, and place it back on table while engaging your elbow and forearm to complete the move. Repeat with the remaining cups.

When all the cups are flipped, return to the first cup and twist your arm and hand counterclockwise to grasp the cup. Lift the cup, turning it over as you do so, and replace it on the table. Repeat with the remaining cups.

Card flip

Hold a deck of cards or stack of index cards in your good hand. Use the fingers of your affected hand (palm down) to pick up the top card, turn it over so your palm is face up and place it on a table or nearby surface. Repeat until all the cards are face up on the table.

To see Lantaigne demonstrate these and other at-home exercise options, watch the video below!

Learn more about comprehensive stroke care at Baystate Health

We provide expert stroke treatment and rehabilitation at Baystate Medical Center and at locations across western Massachusetts. Learn more about stroke signs, symptoms, and treatment, and occupational therapy to help get you back to everyday activities.

Arm Exercises for Stroke Patients

Michelle Lantaigne, Occupational Therapist, of Baystate Rehabilitation Care demonstrates arm and shoulder exercises for recovery from stroke.

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