Changes in sensations after a stroke

Numbness and heaviness

Changes in sensation were one of the first things that people noticed when they were having a stroke particularly numbness in the limbs on one side of the body or one side of the face (See 'The event' A stroke or TIA').

A few also experienced heaviness of a paralysed limb. One man described the sensation as having a two pound bag of sugar in his hand or a ton weight on his leg.

The numb part of the body sometimes felt like it did not belong to the person and was described as like having a dental anaesthetic, a wooden block, a foreigner's hand, an artificial limb or like a part of the body that had been removed and reattached. This shocked some people particularly when they were just waking up. One man described his shock on waking up and recalled not realising his arm was preventing him turning the pages of his newspaper. 

A few found that it was difficult to sleep comfortably with a numb limb and recalled having to get help moving a numb arm or leg when it had got caught underneath their body.

Some found the sensation improved and occasional completely recovered with time. Others continued to experience numbness in a limb even though movement had recovered. Having long term loss of feeling in a hand could affect everyday tasks such as picking up and carrying objects and writing. One woman used a stick because she felt that numbness in her leg and foot affected her balance.

Some people had ongoing itchiness, pins and needles or strange sensations in their limb. One woman described the sensation as like cotton wool being teased out. These sensations were generally not distressing and one woman said she found them quite comforting.

Muscle Spasms

Several people experienced muscle spasms or twitches in their paralysed limb. Many found they could cope with these although some said they were irritating, disturbed their sleep or were very painful. 

One woman found muscle spasms initially very distressing as she did not know why it was happening and was not given any medication. Most found that spasms could be controlled with a muscle relaxing medication. 

Pain, sensitivity and central post stroke pain

Most people had not experienced any pain with their stroke, which surprised some as they thought a stroke might be painful. Some of those who had experienced pain felt that it was poorly understood, particularly central post stroke pain, a condition which only a small number of people experience after stroke.

A few people had a heightened sensitivity to cold or occasionally a feeling that a foot was wet or in water. They found things like getting into a swimming pool, placing a hand under running water, walking past a supermarket freezer cabinet, sitting on plastic seats or in a draft could cause unpleasant or painful sensations in the affected part of the body. One woman permanently wore a woollen glove because of a painful cold sensation in one hand. 

Those with severe post stroke pain described it as unrelenting and very disabling. They found that type of clothing, environment and stressful situations could all exacerbate the pain. 

A woman explained that the pain was due to changes in the brain, rather than an injury and was therefore difficult to relieve. 

Medication including amitriptyline (an antidepressant with pain relieving effects) and gabapentin (an antiepileptic with pain relieving effects) had helped give relief to some people. Side effects were sometimes a problem particularly with amitriptyline which could cause a dry mouth and ulcers. 

People had tried lots of different methods for relieving the pain including complementary therapies such as acupuncture and hypnosis. Most of these had not helped. Methods which had helped included hot baths/showers, hot water bottles and blankets, relaxation and distraction. 

Shoulder pain

Pain in the shoulder after stroke was sometimes due to partial dislocation of the shoulder joint or due to the joints becoming stiff due to immobility (See Interview 18 above). These conditions can develop if the paralysed arm has not been positioned properly or if the person has not been moved correctly in the early time after a stroke. 

Most people found that the pain could be controlled with paracetamol based pain medication and physiotherapy (see 'Stroke recovery' Physical aspects and mobility'). 

A few people had been given a special type of sling which relieves the pressure of the paralysed shoulder. Exercises given by a physiotherapist also helped.

Last reviewed June 2017.


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