Horse-riding therapy may boost recovery after stroke, study findings suggest

Professor Michael Nilsson: "Significant improvements are still possible, even years after a stroke, using motivating, comprehensive therapies provided in stimulating physical and social surroundings to increase brain activity and recovery." Photo: Hunter Medical Research Institute
Professor Michael Nilsson: “Significant improvements are still possible, even years after a stroke, using motivating, comprehensive therapies provided in stimulating physical and social surroundings to increase brain activity and recovery.” Photo: Hunter Medical Research Institute

More than half the stroke survivors who undertook horse-riding therapy as part of a study felt it had benefited them in a range of ways, researchers report.

The therapeutic effects of horse riding and rhythm-and-music therapies were individually assessed in the study, the findings of which have been reported in the American Heart Association’s journal Stroke.

The researchers found that both therapies may improve survivors’ perception of recovery, gait, balance, grip strength and cognition even years after their stroke.

Interventions that engage patients in physical, sensory, cognitive and social activities simultaneously target a range of functions. Researchers said it was this combination of different activities and stimuli, rather than the individual components, that appeared to produce additional beneficial effects for stroke recovery.

Benefits from horse-riding therapy were described by stroke survivors. Image: American Heart Association
Benefits from horse-riding therapy were described by stroke survivors. Image: American Heart Association

“Significant improvements are still possible, even years after a stroke, using motivating, comprehensive therapies provided in stimulating physical and social surroundings to increase brain activity and recovery,” said Dr Michael Nilsson, senior author of the study and director of the Hunter Medical Research Institute and a professor at Australia’s University of Newcastle and Sweden’s University of Gothenburg.

The study centered on 123 Swedish men and women aged 50-75 who had suffered strokes between 10 months and 5 years earlier.

Survivors were randomly assigned to receive either rhythm-and-music therapy, horse-riding therapy, or conventional care (the control group).

The therapies were given twice a week for 12 weeks.

Researchers found that among the survivors who felt they experienced an increased perception of recovery:

  • 56 percent were in the horse-riding group;
  • 38 percent in the rhythm and music group; and
  • 17 percent in the “control or usual care” group.

The perception of recovery was sustained at the three-month and six-month follow-ups.

Horse-riding therapy produces a multi-sensory environment and the three-dimensional movements of the horse’s back creates a sensory experience that closely resembles normal human gait and is considered beneficial for stroke survivors.

In rhythm-and-music therapy, patients listen to music while performing rhythmic and cognitively demanding hand and feet movements to visual and audio cues. Researchers found that the rhythm-and-music activity helped survivors with balance, grip-strength and working memory.

Limitations of the study include the relatively small number of participants and survivors with severe disabilities could not be considered for the therapy. In addition, researchers doubt these therapies would be cost-effective if patients with mild deficiencies had been included.

Further analyses of the study results and follow-up studies involving more participants are planned to help determine efficiency, timing and costs.

Co-authors were Lina Bunketorp-Käll, Åsa Lundgren-Nilsson, Hans Samuelsson, Tulen Pekny, Karin Blomvé, Marcela Pekna, Milos Pekny, and Christian Blomstrand.

Long-Term Improvements After Multimodal Rehabilitation in Late Phase After Stroke: A Randomized Controlled Trial
Lina Bunketorp-Käll, PhD; Åsa Lundgren-Nilsson, PhD; Hans Samuelsson, PhD; Tulen Pekny, MD; Karin Blomvé, MD; Marcela Pekna, MD, PhD; Milos Pekny, MD, PhD; Christian Blomstrand, MD, PhD; Michael Nilsson, MD, PhD
Stroke.
2017; 48:00-00. DOI: 10.1161/STROKEAHA.116.016433

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