Considerations for Forced Use in Upper Extremity Recovery after Stroke

By: Jennifer Brauer, OTR/L, OTD

Photo credit: Ars Electronica / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2014) stroke is the leading cause of death in the United States, as every four minutes someone dies of a stroke. Occupational Therapists work with individuals who have had a stroke to help regain the motor, cognitive, sensory perceptual, social and emotional regulation skills in order to resume performance of meaningful activities. This article will take a closer look at forced use as a treatment approach for remediating movement and promoting functional use of the affected upper extremity after stroke.

Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to reorganize and develop new neural connections through areas directly adjacent to an infarct in the brain or away from the infarct on either side of the brain. Research has shown that after an initial stroke, limitations caused by that stroke have recovered; yet when the individual had another stroke on the other side of the brain the limitations from the first stroke returned. This demonstrates neuroplasticity and the brain’s ability to reorganize as one side of the brain took over function for the side of the brain with the infarct; then the regained function was lost when the individual had another stroke on the other side of the brain. Other studies suggest that persons may be asymptomatic for a neurological condition as the brain has already began to reorganize (Krakauer, 2005). Research and investigation into neuroplasticity continues to be ongoing.

Occupational Therapists’ understanding of neuroplasticity helps to justify treatment approaches aimed at remediating lost function of the upper extremity after a stroke, versus treatment approaches that teach compensatory strategies. Forced use is one treatment approach that requires the affected extremity to engage in movement over a period of time or series of repetitions.

Prior to using this approach, therapists should consider and assess the person’s vision or visual perception, tissue length, joint mobility, degree of activation or hemiparesis and cognition (Nelson, n.d.). Vision is important to assess as persons with neglect will need to improve attention to the affected extremity prior to having the recognition of the affected extremity needed to perform forced use. Also a person’s vision plays a role in the feed forward loop of anticipatory reactions and movements of the affected extremity. Addressing vision and understanding the person’s vision will help the therapist make a successful treatment plan.

Understanding any limitations with the person’s tissue length and/or joint mobility will guide the therapist in preparatory activities like stretching, muscle energy techniques, and mobilizations that need to take place in order to achieve the desired movement of the affected extremity and to help reduce compensatory movement during treatment. Knowing the degree of movement or amount of activation will allow the therapist to appropriately grade forced use activities and determine if forced use is an appropriate treatment approach at that point in recovery. Insight into cognition helps the therapist choose an appropriate context for the activity and steps to the activity.

During forced use activities therapists may observe compensatory movement control strategies caused by the brain and body attempting to accommodate for hypertonicity, hypotonicity, changes in tissue extensibility and decreased neural transmission and cortical input (Lui, McCombe Waller, Kepple, Witall, 2013). Carr and Shepherd (2000) state that the use of compensatory strategies can cause long-term functional limitations. Upper extremity movements that are not facilitated by the therapist may contribute and reinforce compensatory movements (Jeyaraman, Kathiresan, Gopalsamy, 2010). Compensatory movement control strategies have been related to level of impairment after stroke and impaired shoulder contribution during reach activities. A review of studies looked at truncal restraint as a means for reducing compensatory movement control strategies during forced use reach activities. Only one of the studies reviewed was a randomized control study. It did however show the potential for truncal restraint to reduce compensatory movement of the trunk in order to regain a functional reach of the affected extremity (Jeyaraman, Kathiresan, Gopalsamy, 2010).

Further research delves into determining the difference in efficacy between forced use as massed practice or as variable practice. In massed practice, the affected upper extremity performs a single repetitive movement for a period of time. In variable practice the movement trajectory is changed during the forced use activity. Dr. Krakauer (2005), applies motor learning theory to remediating the function of the affected upper extremity after stroke. He states, “motor learning does not need to be rigidly defined . . . it includes skill acquisition, motor adaption, such as prism adaptation and decision making.” He further goes on to state that distributed practice and task variability help improve learning and retention while contributing to the generalization of a skill (Krakauer, 2006).

Understanding the principles of neuroplasticity can influence the structuring of forced use techniques integrated into occupational therapy intervention. Multiple considerations need to be taken into account when choosing forced use a treatment technique for the recovery of movement of an upper extremity after stroke.


For more information and education related to this topic: Use promo Code “OTcafe” for a discount on the following online courses:

  1. Functional Treatment Ideas and Strategies in Adult Hemiplegia By: Jan Davis, MS, OTR/L

  2. The Hemiplegic Shoulder: Practical Assessment and Intervention Strategies By: J.J. Mowder-Tinney, PT, PhD, NCS, C/NDT, CSRS

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About the Author

Jennifer Brauer, OTR/L, OTD, obtained her Doctorate Degree from Creighton University. She has been an Occupational Therapist for over 5 years, with experience in inpatient rehab and acute care. Most of her clinical experience includes working with individuals who have had a brain injury or stroke. She is certified in Neuro-IFRAH. She has been published in Informa Healthcare and OT Practice. She presented a poster at NOTA on the use of the ArmeoSpring as a treatment intervention for stroke survivors. She is currently practicing on a stroke team at Immanuel Medical Center in Omaha, NE, where she is also actively involved in the education committee.



Carr, J & Shepherd, R. (2000). Movement science: Foundations for physical therapy in rehabilitation (2nd ed.). Aspen Publishers, MD: Gaithersburg.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2014). Stroke Fact Sheet. Retrieved from

Jeyaraman, S., Katiresan, G., & Gopalsamy, K. (2010). Normalizing the arm reaching patterns after stroke through forced use therapy – A systematic review. Neuroscience & Medicine, 1, 20-29.

Krakauer, J. (2005). Arm function after stroke: From physiology to recovery. Seminars in Neurology, 25(4), 384-395.

Krakauer, J. (2006). Motor learning: Its relevance to stroke recovery and neurorehabilitation. Current Opinion in Neurology, 19, 84-90.

Liu, W., McCombe Waller, S., Kepple, T., & Whitall, J. (2013). Compensatory arm reaching strategies after stroke: Induced position analysis. Journal of Rehabilitation Research and Development, 50(1), 71-84.

Nelson, C. (n.d.) The concept of forced use as an element of therapy handling. Retrieved from

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