Three years ago, one of my friends went on an end of year meditation retreat in New Zealand. He was a non smoker in his early forties, who seldom had a drink and who practised yoga on a daily basis. Nevertheless, he suffered a stroke in the land of the big white cloud. He was very lucky to survive without any long lasting damage except an enormous scar on the side of his neck, which is now gradually healing.
Then, last week, another close friend in his mid sixties also suffered a stroke on the Gold Coast. He is now learning to walk again and no one can predict at this stage if he will ever be able to negotiate the steep stairs leading up to this house on the North Coast without help.
Even if he makes a full recovery, getting so close to death is a very traumatic experience one never forgets.
Ischemic strokes are a silent killer. Our brain relies on a constant supply of blood to function. A small blood clot can form when one of the neck arteries has been damaged by atherosclerosis or hardening.
Strokes can also occur from arteriosclerosis as a result of fat and calcium deposits gradually building up inside the artery wall.
Arteriosclerosis tends to be more common with people who smoke, have a high fat content in their diet, or who have family history of heart disease or stroke.
A stroke can also be caused by bleeding (haemorrhage) in the brain from a diseased artery. It only takes a few minutes of blood interruption for the brain tissue to suffer permanent damage.
Stroke can cause significant neurological impairment, which often leads to sharp decline in independence and quality of life.
The statistics are alarming, as only 25% of stroke victims will make a full recovery, another 25% will not survive, and the remaining half will experience some degree of permanent impairment for the rest of their lives.
Of course, one can prevent stroke to a certain degree by eating properly, doing regular exercise, avoiding tobacco, monitoring our cholesterol, and watching our blood pressure. But, as I have recently discovered, life can be very fickle. There is no guarantee that a single blood clot will not one day traumatically change or extinguish our life forever. This sober reflection leads me to investigate what can be done to maximise the chance of recovering from a stroke.
The symptoms of stroke vary according to the part of the brain that is affected, but stroke victims commonly suffer from one sided paralysis of a body area, loss of coordination, and/or speech difficulty.
Since in many cases no cure is available for ischemic stroke, the conventional medical approach is through rehabilitation via speech, occupational therapies, strength based exercise programs, and task oriented drills. These treatment techniques can rebuild neuronal connections damaged by the stroke and help regain as much function as possible.
Acupuncture has been used has a form of post stroke treatment both in Japan and China for many decades with sometimes spectacular results.
I have now discovered that mirror therapy can also be very effective.
Since a stroke affects only one side of the body, mirror therapy, as the name suggests, involves looking into a mirror to help the brain rewire itself. It is primarily used to speed up and improve motor function after stroke and other neurological disorders.
Mirror therapy is based on the principle that observation of a movement activates the same part of the brain as execution.
When we want to move a limb the motor neurones in our brain instantly send a signal to the affected muscles, which trigger the action. But we also posses mirror neurones, which activate when they see an action. This could explain why I always get restless while watching sport. The interesting part is that both the motor and mirror neurones are located in the same part of the brain so they influence each other.
During the exercise a mirror screen is placed vertically between the good hand and the bad hand so that only the healthy side is in view. The patient is instructed to perform a movement with his healthy hand and to simultaneously copy it with his affected hidden hand, while watching the healthy hand’s reflection in the mirror. This triggers the mirror neurones to activate when they see the illusion of the affected hand in the mirror. Numerous studies have shown that by tricking the brain this way mobility can improve significantly.
Adding mirror therapy to the daily treatment regime can improve motor performance, ultimately leading to increased independence with daily living tasks.
Once again it seems that the key to longevity might be finding the fine balance between living life to the full, while not going overboard with an indulgent lifestyle. I also believe that behaving decently towards nature and our fellow humans will ultimately bring invaluable peace and serenity when the end comes near.
Olivier Lejus BHSc.MHSc. is a registered acupuncturist and Chinese herbalist practising in Sydney. A former casual university lecturer and tutor in Oriental medicine with over 15 years experience in clinical practice, Olivier specialises in Japanese- style acupuncture for the treatment of male and female infertility, migraine, pain, and insomnia.www.olejusacupuncture.com