Multidisciplinary rehabilitation programmes following treatment of spasticity after stroke

Stroke can cause muscle stiffness, spasms or tightness in the affected arm or leg, with pain and abnormal positioning of the limb. Consequently, there may be difficulties using the arm or leg in everyday activities or in caring for the affected limb. Treatments for spasticity may include botulinum toxin and other injected medications that paralyse the affected muscles. Following such injections, a multidisciplinary (MD) rehabilitation programme (usually delivered by two or more health professionals) is often employed. Interventions may include stretching, splinting, gait training, repetitive practice in using the arm for tasks, and orthotic prescription. Therapies are aimed at reducing spasticity to improve limb use or positioning, or to make it easier to care for the affected limb. The outcomes of such programmes focus on attainment of functional goals that are important to affected people in their everyday life. We included three relevant studies in the review, which investigated different types of MD rehabilitation interventions after botulinum toxin injections into the arms of 91 adults with previous stroke. There was low quality evidence for intensive forced use of the affected arm in improving spasticity, and very low quality evidence for elbow splinting with occupational therapy. We did not identify any studies of MD rehabilitation in children with post-stroke spasticity or after other injected medications. The review findings are limited by the small number of studies that are methodologically flawed. More research is needed into what rehabilitation modalities and treatments are most effective for spasticity management following stroke.

Authors' conclusions: 

At best there was 'low level' evidence for the effectiveness of outpatient MD rehabilitation in improving active function and impairments following BoNT for upper limb spasticity in adults with chronic stroke. No trials explored the effect of MD rehabilitation on 'passive function' (caring for the affected limb), caregiver burden, or the individual's priority goals for treatment. The optimal types (modalities, therapy approaches, settings) and intensities of therapy for improving activity (active and passive function) in adults and children with post-stroke spasticity, in the short and longer term, are unclear. Further research is required to build evidence in this area.

Read the full abstract...

Spasticity may affect stroke survivors by contributing to activity limitations, caregiver burden, pain and reduced quality of life (QoL). Spasticity management guidelines recommend multidisciplinary (MD) rehabilitation programmes following botulinum toxin (BoNT) treatment for post-stroke spasticity. However, the evidence base for the effectiveness of MD rehabilitation is unclear.


To assess the effectiveness of MD rehabilitation, following BoNT and other focal intramuscular treatments such as phenol, in improving activity limitations and other outcomes in adults and children with post-stroke spasticity. To explore what settings, types and intensities of rehabilitation programmes are effective.

Search strategy: 

We searched the Cochrane Stroke Group Trials Register (February 2012), the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL) (The Cochrane Library 2011, Issue 12), MEDLINE (1948 to December 2011), EMBASE (1980 to January 2012), CINAHL (1982 to January 2012), AMED (1985 to January 2012), LILACS (1982 to September 2012), PEDro, REHABDATA and OpenGrey (September 2012). In an effort to identify further published, unpublished and ongoing trials we searched trials registries and reference lists, handsearched journals and contacted authors.

Selection criteria: 

We included randomised controlled trials (RCTs) that compared MD rehabilitation (delivered by two or more disciplines in conjunction with medical input) following BoNT and other focal intramuscular treatments for post-stroke spasticity with placebo, routinely available local services, or lower levels of intervention; or studies that compared MD rehabilitation in different settings, of different types, or at different levels of intensity. We excluded RCTs that assessed the effectiveness of unidisciplinary therapy (for example physiotherapy only) or a single modality (for example stretching, casting, electrical stimulation or splinting only). The primary outcomes were validated measures of activity level (active and passive function) according to the World Health Organization's International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health. Secondary outcomes included measures of symptoms, impairments, participation, QoL, impact on caregivers and adverse events.

Data collection and analysis: 

We independently selected the trials, extracted data, and assessed methodological quality using the Grades of Recommendation, Assessment, Development and Evaluation (GRADE). Due to the limited number of included studies, with clinical, methodological and statistical heterogeneity, quantitative meta-analysis was not possible. Therefore, GRADE provided qualitative synthesis of 'best evidence'.

Main results: 

We included three RCTs involving 91 participants. All three studies scored 'low quality' on the methodological quality assessment, implying high risk of bias. All studies investigated various types and intensities of outpatient rehabilitation programmes following BoNT for upper limb spasticity in adults with chronic stroke. Rehabilitation programmes included: modified constraint-induced movement therapy (mCIMT) compared with a neurodevelopmental therapy programme; task practice therapy with cyclic functional electrical stimulation (FES) compared with task practice therapy only; and occupational, manual therapy with dynamic elbow extension splinting compared with occupational therapy only. There was 'low quality' evidence for mCIMT improving upper limb motor function and spasticity in chronic stroke survivors with residual voluntary upper limb activity, up to six months, and 'very low quality' evidence for dynamic elbow splinting and occupational therapy reducing elbow range of movement at 14 weeks. Task practice therapy with cyclic FES did not improve upper limb function more than task practice therapy alone, only at 12 weeks. No studies addressed interventions in children and those with lower limb spasticity, or after other focal intramuscular treatments for spasticity.