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Beat a stroke by banging a drum

Playing instruments such as the drums or cymbals can help people recover from the debilitating effects of a stroke. 

A pilot study – the first of its kind in the UK – has found that patients taking part in percussion sessions twice a week improved the function in their arms and hands.

The findings highlight how this therapy can potentially transform the care for tens of thousands people who suffer speech loss or other damage when the blood flow to their brain is cut off.

Dr Alexander Street, from Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, said instruments that produce sound from being hit or scraped enable patients with less severe impairments to re-learn essential tasks such as dressing.

A pilot study – the first of its kind in the UK – has found that patients taking part in percussion sessions twice a week improved the function in their arms and hands (stock image) 

‘Gripping a drumstick involves the same movement as opening a jar, for example,’ said Dr Street, a music therapist at the Music for Health Research Centre.

‘The sound and vibration from playing also causes the hearing parts of the brain to connect more with the movement parts. It helps people build new pathways to replace those lost by stroke damage.’

The advantage of percussion exercises is that they do not require musical expertise, and the strong repetitive beat improves learning by boosting brain focus. Strokes affect more than 150,000 people every year and cause more disability in adults than any other disease or condition.

Dr Street’s research, published in the journal Clinical Rehabilitation, investigated the need for long-term support programmes for people leaving hospital or recovering. 

Ten stroke patients, each with reduced function in one arm and weakness down one side of the body, were visited by a music therapist at home for six weeks for 30-minute percussion sessions.

Researchers measured any improvement by asking patients to pick up and then move objects. Those with the least physical impairment performed best in the movement tests.

Dr Street is now working with patients on acute care wards.

This separate study at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge suggests percussion therapy increases energy levels and mood among those taking part.

Music therapy in addition to medication is increasingly being recognised as beneficial for those suffering from depression, brain injuries and dementia. 

Award-winning percussionist Ruairi Glasheen runs drumming workshops in London. Having worked with charities Age UK and Arts4Dementia to provide classes for patients with a range of conditions including Alzheimer’s, this month sees the launch of a new course specifically aimed at boosting mental health and wellbeing.

He said: ‘Drumming is a powerful way to give your brain a full neurological workout.

‘The visual, auditory and motor centres of the brain work hard during a group drumming session – improving concentration, co-ordination and problem- solving skills. It’s also really fun.’

He points to emerging research that suggests the power of music and rhythm can increase dopamine levels in the brain, which makes it especially effective in the management of neurological disease.

But the effect is also psychological, he explained. ‘A group drumming session is powerful and transformative. You feel energised and it’s hard to engage with much else.

‘Drumming is a way to feel connected to others without speaking. You don’t need to be an extrovert, you don’t need to be musical and you don’t need to have played an instrument before. But you get to meet new people and also be part of creating an incredible shared experience.’



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