Benefits of Cortical Priming for Stroke Rehabilitation

Henry Hoffman
Tuesday, February 14th, 2017
Last modified on September 2nd, 2022

Benefits of Cortical Priming for Stroke Rehab-blog

After someone suffers a stroke, there are several conditions that need attention. One of these is impaired motor function, or the loss of movement or use of a particular body part.

Regaining motor function is necessary to be able to perform routine activities, and exercise and general use are key for recovery. However, research shows that stroke survivors actually complete very few arm movements during physical therapy—often only 23 to 32 repetitions per session.

The good news for stroke survivors is there’s another way to help restore function: priming.

What is Priming?

The Brain

Priming is a style of learning in which a change in behavior is prompted by an underlying stimulant. It is a non-conscious form of memory, a way of associating words and objects with related memories.

So, seeing the word “green” may make someone quicker to recognize the word “grass.” This is because the words green and grass are closely associated to one another in our minds, making it easier to identify one after being prompted, or primed, with the other.


Priming has been studied in the field of psychology for many years, but psychologists have only just started to research its possible role in facilitating motor learning, or in this case, relearning. Priming readies our nervous system for learning and change, which amplifies the effects of rehabilitation. Focus is placed on neural mechanisms, which cause neural plasticity, decreasing motor impairment and improving motor function.

By adding priming exercises to their repertoire, rehabilitation therapists can help patients restore motor function—as opposed to working around it—that is hindered by paralysis.

How Priming Works


There are two hemispheres of the brain: right and left. Each side is responsible for controlling the opposite side of the body (i.e. right brain controls left side of the body and vice versa). Each hemisphere naturally inhibits the opposite side so that the body doesn’t perform mirror movements—both sides making the same movement at the same time.

Strokes tend to create an imbalance between each side of the brain. After a stroke, the affected hemisphere doesn’t receive as many signals as the unaffected one. What this means is the healthy side experiences increased sensitivity and reduced inhibition.

Think of a detour sign by the road that instructs drivers to turn right instead of left. The drivers want to go left, but they are directed to the right. These drivers represent signals in the brain, and the sign pointing them to the right against their will is the unaffected part of the brain, which is more excitable and receiving stronger signals than the affected part of the brain (represented by the left turn in this example).

Decreased signals on the affected side of the brain can limit functional recovery. This is why rehab therapy is so important: it helps to figure out ways of bringing balance back to both hemispheres.

This is where priming comes in. By using both invasive and non-invasive therapies, priming can improve the brain’s potential to restore balance after a stroke. Priming techniques may be administered prior to therapy as well as during it.

Sensory Electrical Stimulation (SES)


Sensory Electrical Stimulation (SES) is a technique that is noninvasive, safe, and can be used to prime the brain.

Tools like the SaeboStim Micro provide SES to the hand and arm, improving excitability to the affected brain hemisphere. Using the SaeboStim Micro before or after physical therapy restores brain balance and might lead to better motor function.

A neurological injury like a stroke may lead to sensory and motor deficits, such as impaired use of the hand and/or arm. This can often weaken sensory communication between the body and brain. However, research has shown that SES is a highly beneficial treatment that can improve both sensory and motor functions.
By providing stimulation at a minimal level, the main objective of SES is to maximize brain input and prime the brain’s cortex to achieve improved neuroplasticity, motor function, and recovery.

Benefits of Priming

The benefits of priming in stroke patients are substantial. With SES and the SaeboStim Micro, patients may expect:

  • Regulated hand temperature
  • Recovered sensation
  • More attention on affected part of the body
  • Strengthened motor function
  • Reduced spasticity
  • Reduced pain and swelling
  • Increased cortical plasticity

Get the Most Out of Priming and SES

Impaired motor function can affect a stroke survivor’s entire life. By involving cortical priming in therapy and taking advantage of tools such as SES and the SaeboStim Micro, patients will be better equipped to increase movement and repetitions when they begin their rehabilitation. This will put them on a fast track to recovery and lead to an overall better quality of life.

All content provided on this blog is for informational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. If you think you may have a medical emergency, call your doctor or 911 immediately. Reliance on any information provided by the Saebo website is solely at your own risk.

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