How Transcranial Magnetic Therapy Helps Stroke Rehabilitation

Transcranial magnetic treatment or repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) was initially used in the 1980s to treat various mental health disorders. As technology advances and more researchers study rTMS, therapy professionals are finding that it has more clinical applications than previously believed.

According to the CDC, someone has a stroke every 40 seconds, and stroke fatalities happen nearly every three minutes. The American Heart Association reports it’s the leading cause of long-term disability, with many suffering from reduced mobility. rTMS can supplement traditional therapeutic methods to safely improve stroke patients’ recovery, revolutionizing neurorehabilitation therapy and enhancing survivors’ quality of life. It can help improve walking speed, swallowing disorders, language processing, depression associated with strokes, brain responsiveness, and much more.

What is rTMS?

It’s a noninvasive and nonsystemic treatment that you can have done at an outpatient clinic. Repetitive TMS uses a magnetic coil to influence your brain’s natural electrical activity to treat various mental health and brain-related conditions. It helps promote healthy functioning by encouraging neuroplasticity, the natural healing your brain does to rewire itself and reassign damaged functions to healthy areas of the brain.

You will have a magnetic coil inside a nonmagnetic case or housing positioned on your scalp, depending on what condition you are getting treated. Sometimes the device is inside a helmet you wear or a probe on your scalp. The repetitive pulse stimulations from the magnet can be loud, similar to an MRI if you have had one, so you will have ear protection to protect your hearing. It can also feel like a tapping sensation on your scalp as well.

Is it FDA Approved?

While it is not approved to treat individuals who have suffered a stroke, the FDA has approved rTMS to treat pain associated with certain migraines, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and depression. Research is ongoing for the many neurological and psychological applications for TMS, as the possibilities are nearly endless.

What is a Stroke?

A stroke is a medical emergency due to your brain not getting enough blood with oxygen and nutrients to function correctly. It can either happen from a blood clot blocking the critical blood supply or a weakened blood vessel bursting. If the brain doesn’t get blood for too long, brain cells die, and you will sustain a brain injury. Strokes can also lead to permanent disabilities and death.

Some common side effects of a stroke include spasticity, paralysis, and weakness. You can have trouble with vision, one-sided neglect, and various difficulties walking with other symptoms like foot drop or trouble balancing. You can also have problems with your memory, creating new memories, or speaking and language comprehension.

How Can rTMS Help Stroke Recovery?

It Can Help with Dysphagia

Dysphagia is difficulty swallowing food or liquid. Depending on the severity, it can be painful and even impossible to swallow. You can be in danger of choking or taking food or fluids into your lungs. Without treatment and recovery, you can be on a limited, unappetizing diet for the rest of your life. Active rTMS can improve the extent of dysphagia, especially when combined with conventional neurorehabilitation treatments.

Walking Speed Can Improve from rTMS

Due to motor deficits, stroke patients often cannot walk independently after a stroke. This impacts their quality of life and overall walking speed, putting them at risk for more strokes and secondary complications like osteoporosis and cardiopulmonary disease. Patients’ walking speed improved by administering rTMS to the side of the brain affected by either an ischemic or hemorrhagic stroke.

It Can Assist with Aphasia

There are three types of aphasia: Broca’s, Wernicke’s, and global. Wernicke’s aphasia involves damage to a region that prevents stroke survivors from understanding language. With Broca’s, you can still understand languages but have trouble turning your thoughts into words. Global aphasia is a combination of both Broca’s and Wernicke’s.

Research has shown that rTMS is effective at helping patients with aphasia. They had significant improvement in naming skills even if they were nonfluent before. TMS and speech therapy improved patients’ language centers on imaging even two years post-TMS.

Post-Stroke Depression (PSD) Can Improve with rTMS

Approximately 50% of stroke survivors will develop PSD due to biochemical changes in their brain or loss of function and independence. Since TMS is an effective treatment for depression, it can also relieve depression symptoms for stroke survivors without adding antidepressant therapy.

Nearly 800,000 people have a stroke yearly, requiring long-term physical and occupational therapy or moving to permanent assisted living facilities. The quicker a person receives treatment when they have a stroke, the better their overall outcome. To save someone’s brain function, remember the acronym BE FAST:

Balance: They could have trouble with balance or coordination suddenly.
Eyes: They might have blurred, double, or no vision in one or both eyes.
Face: Their face might droop. Ask them to smile; one side will smile while the other is drooping or remains unchanged.
Arms: Like their face, if they raise their arms, one may stay in place or drift downwards.
Speech: They may have slurred speech, speak nonsensically, or be unable to speak at all. Ask them to repeat a simple phrase like, “It’s a sunny day,” to check.
Time to get help: Note when the symptoms started and call 9-1-1 or get the person to the hospital immediately.

No matter how quickly you can get someone to the hospital, they can still suffer side effects. If they do, TMS or transmagnetic stimulation is a promising and novel approach to stroke rehabilitation, even years after a stroke. Further study is needed to show its effectiveness for treating stroke-related impairments and gain FDA approval. But, the future for stroke survivors and rTMS is hopeful and exciting.