Swimming awakens sleeping arm and hand

Twenty-three years after a massive stroke paralyzed John Humphrey’s left arm and hand, doctors were astonished to see movement returning to his fingers—proof that stroke recovery can occur far beyond the six month mark historically thought to be the limit of recovery.

In 1979, John was just 15 years old when he had a rare type of stroke. There were no signs of recovery until 2002 when John took up swimming and noticed his arm and the fingers of his left hand were starting to move. Wanting to share his progress with the medical community, John met with Dr. David Spence, the neurologist at London Health Sciences Centre – University Hospital who had treated him decades earlier. Dr. Spence determined the pressure of the water hitting John’s arm and hand when he was swimming was serving as a therapeutic weight-bearing exercise that was beginning to restore movement.

Dr. Teasell and John Humphrey

Dr. Robert Teasell, left, examining John Humphrey’s hand which regained movement 23 years after he had a stroke.

Dr. Spence, who is also a professor of Neurology and Clinical Pharmacology at Western University’s Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry, referred John to Dr. Robert Teasell, Medical Director of theStroke Rehabilitation Unit at Parkwood Institute, part of St. Joseph’s Health Care London, who began a period of intensive rehabilitation therapy with John so he could continue improving his hand function.

“John’s brain was working hard to compensate and find other ways to move his hand,” explains Dr. Teasell. Dr. Spence starting tracking John’s brain function with a series of MRI scans that revealed his brain was rewiring and hand function was now distributed on both sides of the brain. This phenomenon, when the brain finds new pathways to circumvent damaged nerves, is known as neuroplasticity.

“John defied the normal stroke recovery pattern,” continues Dr. Teasell. “Patients rarely show this degree of improvement – especially not 23 years after they have had a stroke. It’s as if his arm and hand were asleep and swimming woke them up.”

Now 53, John is an accomplished freelance writer who covers the Ontario Hockey League. He has published more than 3,000 articles and columns around the world. He is motivated to try the many new therapies and technologies emerging for stroke rehabilitation. Thirty-eight years post-stroke he is conscientiously continuing physiotherapy exercises at home and at a clinic in Windsor. Under the guidance of Dr. Teasell, he plans to explore new therapies, including robotics and transcranial magnetic stimulation.

Through his almost life-long experience with stroke, John has gained a tremendous insight and wisdom, which he can share with others. He is an advocate for stroke care and a motivational speaker for organizations providing stroke care.

“Recoveries can take place years post-stroke if a patient is determined to never give up and doesn't stop trying to improve,” he claims. “I absolutely refuse to stop trying to recover as much function as possible.”

A report in the Journal of Neurophysiology, co-authored by Drs. Spence and Teasell who are both scientists at Lawson Health Research Institute, as well as Dr. Peter Sörös of the University of Oldenburg in Germany and Dr. Daniel Hanley of John Hopkins University, states, “This case provides impetus not only to more intensive and prolonged physiotherapy, but also to treatment with emerging modalities such as stem cell therapy, exosome and micro-RNA therapies.”

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