Lyons Optimal Wellness with Cliff Colgan, MS
If a person suffers a very strong blow to the head, many times they will suffer motor damage, or the inability to make their muscles work properly. This head blow or injury often affects one side of the body more than the other side. This inability can affect their upper or lower body (or both) but more on one side than the other. The scientific term is “hemiplegia,” which means muscle weakness on half of the body (right or left side).
When this traumatic injury happens to the head, brain cells are damaged and the electrical signals from the brain through the spinal cord to the muscles are interrupted. The shoulder, elbow, hand, or legs lose some, most, or all function, and just don’t work as they used to.
What usually happens is the injured person tries to use their arm or leg and notices they don’t work properly. A daily activity such as eating with a utensil, brushing one’s teeth, or walking with the affected leg no longer can be accomplished properly by the affected side. So the person naturally tries the other arm or leg to see how it works. Thank goodness that limb behaves pretty well, and does the task as performed before the injury.
After some trial and error, almost all people suffering muscle weakness and loss of function of daily activities by an arm or leg on one side of the body, stop using that side for major activities. The person thinks, “well I can’t use my right arm any more, I better use my left if I am going to survive.” The person suffering the brain injury compensates by using the good arm or leg more, or all the time.
Edward Taub, a noted neuro-psychologist and neuro-researcher, termed this lack of operation of the more affected arm or leg in a brain injury as “learned non-use.” He researched monkeys in the laboratory and found if the monkeys thought they couldn’t move one arm, they would use the other arm. By using the “good arm” they lost nerve connections in the brain to the “bad arm.” After a while they couldn’t use the “bad arm” as well.
So the moral of the story for traumatic brain injury sufferers, as well as stroke survivors, hip replacement patients, kids with cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis patients, and many more people suffering poor function on one side of the body is: forced use of the more affected side of the body can help you perform daily activities again with the “bad side” limbs.
This, however, is easier said than done. But intense, high numbers of non-specific gross arm movements, that don’t come close to the original fine motor control a person had before the injury, can be re-shaped and made to work serviceably again. The arm and hand movements may not flow like quicksilver as they once did, but a person can be trained to eat, dress, and do other daily activities with the more affected limbs. With intense, fatiguing, concentrated effort, the brain can be coerced to make new nerve connections in the brain to get the job done.
Where does the catcher’s mitt come in? Sometimes, especially at the start of rehab of weaker side muscles, the good side wants to rush in and do the task like it learned to do. By putting a mitt on the “good” hand, or putting the good arm in a sling, or putting a temporary cast on a child’s good arm and hand, the good side is constrained so the “bad side” is forced to do the work. This putting on the catcher’s mitt (metaphorically) allows the more affected side to get the work it needs to improve its functions. Actually, smaller more comfortable mitts are used to constrain the good side in rehab.
Gabby Giffords, the brave Arizona Congresswoman who suffered a gunshot wound to the left side of the head, has undergone extensive training of the right side of her body and the left side of her brain. In doing so, she has regained use of her right body to a remarkable degree. She was immensely motivated to improve her motor and speech function… and she did. Without concentrated, forced, high repetitions of the bad arm or leg, improved results are disappointing. However, maximal, determined effort in re-training the brain connection to the muscles on the weaker side can have very satisfying improvement in doing daily activities needed to get along in this world.
If you have any questions, please contact Cliff Colgan at 303-898-6109.