How Our Brains Recover After Injury

 As part of Brain Injury Awareness Month, Select Medical offers a helpful video to understand the concept of neuroplasticity.


If the brain had a superpower, it just might be neuroplasticity. Whether it’s due to aging, trauma or disease, the structure and connections in our brain are designed to adapt and change over a lifetime. Neuroplasticity is the way the brain forms and recreates neuropathways.

“Neuroplasticity is the process of creating new neural connections to bypass damaged areas of the brain,” said Brian Fritz, P.T., DPT, regional director of rehabilitation for Select Medical.  “These newly forged connections can hopefully restore functions that were lost as a result of the brain injury.”

The process of neuroplasticity allows us to learn new things, but it also plays a vital role in brain injury recovery by enabling the brain to compensate for damaged areas and establish new neural connections.

Healing power of neuroplasticity

After a brain injury, neural connections can be damaged or lost. Luckily, brains are resilient and can reorganize through neuroplasticity. Therapeutic activities often involve repetitive tasks and practice, which strengthens existing neural pathways or stimulates the formation of new ones. By taking advantage of the brain's potential to reorganize, individuals with brain injuries can regain lost abilities and improve their overall quality of life.

“Neuroplastic changes require thousands of repetitions to achieve,” said Fritz. “Ever advancing technology such as robotic devices, exoskeletons and virtual reality can enhance therapy results.”

Select Medical’s expert team of doctors, therapists and neuropsychologists focus on the relationship between how our brains process information and how our bodies respond. They evaluate individuals with brain injury or disease to measure behavioral and cognitive changes and then create a care plan based on a patient’s individual needs and goals.

Once a treatment plan is in place, the care team works together with the patient to achieve the best outcomes possible. Each one of Select Medical’s skilled professionals focus on a different part of the patient recovery process, although there is often overlap.

Physical therapy

A physical therapist works on reconnecting the neural pathways in the brain that control movement. They use neuroplasticity in practice to help patients recover from brain injuries in a number of ways. For example, stroke patients who experience weakness or paralysis on one side of their body may benefit from constraint-induced movement therapy. This is when the stronger side of the body is restrained to encourage the use of the weaker side, promoting neuroplasticity in the parts of the brain responsible for movement on the weaker side. With repetition, these newly formed pathways get stronger and movement becomes easier.

The same concept is applied to task-specific training, such as walking or reaching. By repeating these movements, a patient can strengthen neural connections and improve their ability to perform the tasks.

Occupational therapy

An occupational therapist works with a patient to develop and restore motor, sensory and psychosocial skills necessary to perform everyday activities such as getting dressed, eating or returning to work. Occupational therapists help patients relearn daily living skills by breaking them down into smaller steps to practice repetitively.

A patient experiencing sensory issues because of a brain injury may be repeatedly exposed to activities that stimulate the affected sense. For example, if a person is having trouble with touch recognition, trying to identify different objects through touch only can help stimulate and build pathways in the part of the brain that processes tactile information. Similarly, if brain injury has caused focus or memory deficits, engaging in activities that use these cognitive skills will strengthen both.

Speech therapy

Speech therapists use the power of neuroplasticity to help people improve their communication, thinking and swallowing skills after a brain injury. Speech therapy focuses on restoring the brain pathways responsible for the planning, coordination and muscle control necessary to create speech. For example, reading words or making sounds aloud in a repetitive manner can strengthen the connection between the brain and mouth.

Recreational therapy

Recreational therapists can motivate patients by tapping into their personal interests. Recreational activities help patients manage stress and develop healthy coping and social skills while increasing self-esteem. Engaging in crafts, like making a birdhouse or painting a flower, can be used to target functional goals. Making a beaded bracelet can improve fine motor skills and coordination, while cooking can enhance sequencing skills. These activities promote neuroplasticity while making rehabilitation more enjoyable.

Select Medical’s network of rehabilitation hospitals and brain injury specialists understand the crucial role neuroplasticity plays in advancing brain injury recovery now and into the future.

“New therapeutic modalities are being created and tested all the time,” remarked Fritz. “One major therapy that is on the horizon is transcranial direct current stimulation. This therapy is a form of non-invasive brain stimulation that has recently obtained FDA approval. It has been shown to enhance activity in damaged areas of the brain, hopefully leading to an improvement in function after use.”

Our goal is to be there with each patient, every step of the way, strengthening their mind, body and spirit.