Introduction: In the recent literature we can find many articles dealing with upper extremity rehabilitation in stroke patients. New techniques, still under evaluation, are becoming the practical applications for the concept of post-stroke brain plasticity.
Methods: This literature review focuses on controlled randomized studies, reviews and meta-analyses published in the English language from 2004 to 2008. The research was conducted in MEDLINE with the following keywords: "upper limb", "stroke", "rehabilitation".
Results: We reviewed 66 studies. The main therapeutic strategies are: activation of the ipsilesional motor cortex, inhibition of the contralesional motor cortex and modulation of the sensory afferents. Keeping a cortical representation of the upper limb distal extremity could prevent the learned non-use phenomenon. The modulation of sensory afferents is then proposed: distal cutaneous electrostimulation, anesthesia of the healthy limb, mirror therapy, virtual reality. Intensifying the rehabilitation care means increasing the total hours of rehabilitation dedicated to the paretic limb (proprioceptive stimulation and repetitive movements). This specific rehabilitation is facilitated by robot-aided therapy in the active-assisted mode, neuromuscular electrostimulation and bilateral task training. Intensifying the rehabilitation training program significantly improves the arm function outcome when performed during subacute stroke rehabilitation (< six months). Ipsilesional neurostimulation as well as mental practice optimize the effect of repetitive gestures for slight motor impairments. Contralesional neurostimulation or anesthesia of the healthy hand both improve the paretic hand's dexterity via a decrease of the transcallosal inhibition. This pathophysiological mechanism could also explain the positive impact of constraint-induced movement therapy (CI therapy) in an environmental setting for chronic stroke patients.
Conclusion: To ensure a positive functional outcome, stroke rehabilitation programs are based on task-oriented repetitive training. This literature review shows that exercising the hemiparetic hand and wrist is essential in all stages of a stroke rehabilitation program. New data stemming from neurosciences suggest that ipsilesional corticospinal excitability should be a priority.