Art Therapy and Stroke Patients

1 in every 4 persons has a stroke. So sadly, it’s likely that most of us have had experienced or know someone who has had a stroke. I am a part of that demographic. For me, that person was my uncle. I had never known a time where I didn’t see him in a wheelchair or hunched over his cane dragging his feet. I have never learned the detailed story, but from what I was told, it was a stroke that was further exacerbated by wrongfully administered medication. He tried physical therapy, working towards regaining his physical functions, which were impacted by the stroke. But it was to no avail. Every time I saw him, I urged him to continue physical therapy. And there was some improvement, but he was too far removed from the stroke to ever fully or even partially regain his abilities. Each interaction was bittersweet; he was still the same person, my loving uncle, yet it felt like the fire had dimmed down. His disability always found a way to impede his quality of life.

Picture of my uncle in his wheelchair and walking cane.

    There are three types of strokes: ischemic, hemorrhagic, and transient ischemic. The general premise of a stroke is that the brain is damaged due to a lack of blood supply. Where these types differentiate themselves in how that blood supply is stopped. The least deadly is when blood flow to the brain is briefly interrupted, causing a transient ischemic stroke. The majority of the time clot formation prevents blood flow, causing an ischemic stroke happens. Yet the deadliest is a hemorrhagic stroke where, as the name implies, a blood vessel ruptures and bleeds into the brain. 

    Taken together, strokes impact our various brain areas. At the base, a stroke can damage the brainstem, impairing our normal, life-necessary functions like breathing. Consequently, a brainstem stroke is almost always deadly. Further up sits the cerebellum. Here, a stroke can damage our sense of balance, movement. It’s less common, but these strokes cause patients to have dizziness, nausea, and an inability to walk. Next, sits the cerebrum, or the left and right hemispheres. Strokes in the right hemisphere can reduce visual and spatial abilities and lead to left side paralysis. While left hemisphere strokes can reduce reading and writing abilities in addition to right side paralysis.

    In any case, most patients undergo some form of therapy to rebuild and heal those damaged brain areas. Physical therapy for impaired physical function; speech therapy if it’s a left hemisphere stroke.

    One form of therapy caught my eye. Art therapy is not commonplace with stroke patients, but research is being conducted to analyze its benefits. One research study in particular stood out to me.

    In this experiment, the researchers from McGill University analyzed the feasibility of dance therapy with stroke patients in a hospital setting (Demers and McKinley 2015). The participants underwent biweekly, moderate intensity, 45-minute dance sessions. This twice a week program was offered in addition to normal rehabilitation for stroke patients for a total of four weeks. The goal was to help rehabilitate physical, psychological, and cognitive abilities in the patients. Following the four week therapy, the subjects found the dance interventions to be effective. For one, subjects found the therapy to correctly balance between being physically challenging and causing excessive fatigue. It also proved to be a safe intervention that also improved physical, social, and psychological functions.

Dance Routine Used in the Intervention.

    As we’ve seen this entire semester, the arts are heavily connected to the brain. Dance therapy’s effectiveness in stroke rehabilitation further highlights this reality and opens new opportunities for other art therapies to explore a multitude of brain and body injuries and disorders.


Demers M, McKinley P. 2015. Feasibility of Delivering a Dance Intervention for SubAcute Stroke in a Rehabilitation Hospital Setting. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 12(3): 3120-3132.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Liam O'Sullivan says:

    Hi Victor, this was a great blog post. I learned a lot about Stokes and how they affect an individual’s brain. I definitely agree with you that art is incredibly connected to the brain, so it comes as no great surprise that it can help mend some damages. I think it is often overlooked how much of a positive effect dancing can have, physically and psychologically. I’d love to follow this data and research as the years go by to see them unravel more details behind why this is happening!

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