When should physical rehabilitation commence after stroke: a systematic review

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Knowing when to commence physical rehabilitation after stroke is important to ensure optimal benefit for stroke survivors and efficient health care. The aims of this review were to: determine the effects on mortality, function and complications when physical rehabilitation commences ‘early’ (within seven days of stroke); and describe the effects of early transfer to rehabilitation wards/hospitals when sustained rehabilitation is unavailable in acute stroke units.

Review summary

From 3751 potential articles we included 5 randomized controlled trials and 38 cohort studies. Meta-analysis was performed with 3 randomized controlled trials involving 159 people to investigate the effects of commencing physical rehabilitation within 24 h of stroke compared to 48 h. Commencing physical rehabilitation within 24 h trended towards greater mortality (Mantel-Haenszel odds ratio 2·58; 95% confidence interval 0·98 to 6·79,P= 0·06), with no differences in complications or health outcomes. The cohort studies provided evidence of benefits when physical rehabilitation was commenced on the day of admission (n= 1), within 3 days of stroke (n= 3), or ‘sooner rather than later’ (3 of 4 studies). The effect of earlier transfer to rehabilitation was reported in 32 cohort studies. In 23/26 (88%) cohort studies that accounted for age and stroke severity, results favored earlier transfer for improving post-stroke function, with no consensus on timeframes.


In summary, the benefits of commencing physical rehabilitation within 24 h of stroke remain unclear from the current literature. Commencing physical rehabilitation or transferring to rehabilitation services ‘early’ may provide better functional outcomes.

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