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Physical rehabilitation approaches for recovery of function, balance and walking after stroke

Pollock A, Baer G, Campbell P, Choo P, Forster A, Morris J, Pomeroy VM, Langhorne P
Published Online: 
22 April 2014


We wanted to know whether physical rehabilitation approaches are effective in recovery of function and mobility in people with stroke, and if any one physical rehabilitation approach is more effective than any other approach.


Stroke can cause paralysis of some parts of the body and other difficulties with various physical functions. Physical rehabilitation is an important part of rehabilitation for people who have had a stroke. Over the years, various approaches to physical rehabilitation have been developed, according to different ideas about how people recover after a stroke. Often physiotherapists will follow one particular approach, to the exclusion of others, but this practice is generally based on personal preference rather than scientific rationale. Considerable debate continues among physiotherapists about the relative benefits of different approaches; therefore it is important to bring together the research evidence and highlight what best practice ought to be in selecting these different approaches.

Study characteristics

We identified 96 studies, up to December 2012, for inclusion in the review. These studies, involving 10,401 stroke survivors, investigated physical rehabilitation approaches aimed at promoting recovery of function or mobility in adult participants with a clinical diagnosis of stroke compared with no treatment, usual care or attention control or in comparisons of different physical rehabilitation approaches. The average number of participants in each study was 105: most studies (93%) included fewer than 200 participants, one study had more than 1000 participants, six had between 250 and 100 participants and 10 had 20 or fewer participants. Outcomes included measures of independence in activities of daily living (ADL), motor function (functional movement), balance, walking speed and length of stay. More than half of the studies (50/96) were carried out in China. These studies showed many differences in relation to the type of stroke and how severe it was, as well as differences in treatment, which varied according to both treatment type and duration.

Key results

This review brings together evidence confirming that physical rehabilitation (often delivered by a physiotherapist, physical therapist or rehabilitation therapist) can improve function, balance and walking after stroke. It appears to be most beneficial when the therapist selects a mixture of different treatments for an individual patient from a wide range of available treatments.

We were able to combine the results from 27 studies (3243 stroke survivors) that compared physical rehabilitation versus no treatment. Twenty-five of these 27 studies were carried out in China. Results showed that physical rehabilitation improves functional recovery, and that this improvement may last long-term. When we looked at studies that compared additional physical rehabilitation versus usual care or a control intervention, we found evidence to show that the additional physical treatment improved motor function (12 studies, 887 stroke survivors), standing balance (five studies, 246 stroke survivors) and walking speed (14 studies, 1126 stroke survivors). Very limited evidence suggests that, for comparisons of physical rehabilitation versus no treatment and versus usual care, treatment that appeared to be effective was given between 30 and 60 minutes per day, five to seven days per week, but further research is needed to confirm this. We also found evidence of greater benefit associated with a shorter time since stroke, but again further research is needed to confirm this.

We found evidence showing that no one physical rehabilitation approach was more effective than any other approach. This finding means that physiotherapists should choose each individual patient's treatment according to the evidence available for that specific treatment, and should not limit their practice to a single 'named' approach.

Quality of the evidence

It was difficult for us to judge the quality of evidence because we found poor, incomplete or brief reporting of information. We determined that less than 50% of the studies were of good quality, and for most studies, the quality of the evidence was unclear from the information provided.

This record should be cited as: 
Pollock A, Baer G, Campbell P, Choo P, Forster A, Morris J, Pomeroy VM, Langhorne P. Physical rehabilitation approaches for the recovery of function and mobility following stroke. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2014, Issue 4. Art. No.: CD001920. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD001920.pub3
Assessed as up to date: 
6 February 2014