Hemiagnosia in Stroke Survivors

A stroke can result in a variety of long-term and short-term outcomes. One of the more challenging consequences of a stroke is a group of symptoms referred to as visual-spatial neglect, hemispatial neglect or hemiagnosia.

Neglect is the more common term used to describe a stroke survivor's lack of sensation, lack of attention to, or lack of awareness of one side of the body or one side of his or her environment.

Neglect might manifest as a lack of perception of one side of vision after a stroke. Neglect may also manifest as a loss of recognition of one side of a stroke survivor's surroundings.

What Type of Stroke Causes Neglect?

Neglect can develop after a stroke that damages the frontal lobe or the parietal lobe of the brain because these the areas control visual-spatial processing. Normal visual-spatial processing involves the understanding of how objects are related to each other in space.

Neglect most often occurs after a stroke that affects the non-dominant side of the brain- the right side of the brain in right-handed people or the left side of the brain in left-handed people. Usually, language is not severely affected with neglect because language function is located on the dominant side of the brain.

There are differences between strokes on the right side of the brain and strokes on the left side of the brain, and these differences are particularly noticeable for people who are left-handed.

Symptoms of Neglect

  • Sensation: Neglect can impact awareness or sensation of the left arm or the left leg or both. Stroke survivors with neglect often ignore one side of the body, and in many cases, do not know if they feel sensation on one side of the body. In some cases, a stroke survivor may feel sensation on the impaired side, but when asked to describe the location, he or she might point to the other (wrong) side.
  • Vision: Sometimes stroke survivors neglect everything that is on one side of vision, even when there is no actual loss of vision. It can be particularly challenging to unravel whether a stroke survivor also has loss of peripheral vision in addition to visual neglect. Stroke survivors with visual neglect may blink when an object is nearing their eye (because they saw the object) but they cannot identify the object or remember seeing it.
  • Sound: Often, a stroke survivor may neglect sounds coming from the neglected side or may have trouble figuring out where the sounds are coming from.
  • Awareness of surroundings: Stroke survivors who suffer from neglect may not notice objects or people on one side of the room.

How a Stroke Survivor Experiences Neglect

This lack of awareness can range in severity, affecting different stroke survivors differently. For some stroke survivors, hemispatial neglect is frustrating because it makes it difficult to locate objects on the left side of the room, for example.

However, when a stroke is severe, the stroke survivor may not be aware of hemispatial neglect and may not even care. Some stroke survivors may see only the right side of the room but inaccurately perceive that they are seeing the whole room.

The lack of awareness that there is a problem makes everyday function extremely challenging.

Typically, stroke survivors may be confused about the area of neglect and may alternate between progress and regression during recovery. 

Neglect Can Interfere With the Ability to Fully Participate With Rehabilitation

Generally, a stroke survivor with hemispatial neglect is unaware of the problem. Depending on several factors, some stroke survivors may be able to understand the significance of the neglect, while some may not believe that there is any neglect at all - and may insist that they are moving an arm or a leg when they are not.

Medical Treatment of Neglect

Neglect often improves gradually, although some stroke survivors continue to experience neglect for years. There are a few treatment approaches that can help with neglect. These include:

  • Rehabilitation: Therapy after a stroke includes a variety of techniques. Mirror therapy is one of the techniques used for some people recovering from visuospatial neglect.
  • Medication: So far there has been some research into medications that can help with visuospatial neglect, and some results look promising. But, currently, medication is not considered the most beneficial approach to this problem.
  • Non-invasive brain stimulation: As with medication, there is research into this approach. So far, there is not strong evidence supporting the use of electrical therapy for this problem, but research is ongoing.

Caregivers and Visual Spatial Neglect

Neglect is one of the most troublesome stroke consequences for loved ones. Stroke survivors with neglect may be more content and less upset about the stroke because of their lack of awareness. But between the difficulty finding things, the inability to fully cooperate with rehabilitation, and the diminished perception of pain, a stroke survivor's neglect can be emotionally stressful for the caregiver.

Tips for Dealing With Neglect

  • Be patient. Neglect is a real neurological deficit. It is not a behavioral problem, ‘denial,’ forgetfulness or uncooperativeness. A stroke survivor with the symptom of neglect cannot help it.
  • Try to help your loved one who is recovering from stroke by physically assisting him or her to turn around and look at the room from the other side. This can help get your loved one better oriented to his or her surroundings. Build the action of 'turning around and looking from the other side' into the regular routine and habits for your loved one. He might not be able to overcome neglect, but might be able to remember a habit such as “always turn around when you are looking for something.“
  • Pay attention to safety. Your loved one might not complain of pain, temperature changes or discomfort on the neglected side. Check for injuries, sharp objects, or anything else that could harm the neglected side.

A Word From Verywell

Neglect is one of the most unusual and difficult to understand consequences of stroke. Hemiagnosia is much more noticeable and upsetting for caregivers than for the stroke survivor. When you have a loved one who is dealing with visual-spatial neglect after a stroke, stroke care can be especially demanding.  Understanding neglect is your most important step in coping with those challenges.

Further Reading:

Noninvasive Brain Stimulation Improves Hemispatial Neglect After Stroke: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis, Salazar APS, Vaz PG, Marchese RR, Stein C, Pinto C, Pagnussat AS, Arch Phys Med Rehabil. 2017 Aug 9. pii: S0003-9993(17)30531-2. doi: 10.1016/j.apmr.2017.07.009. [Epub ahead of print]

Pharmacological Treatment of Visuospatial Neglect: A Systematic Review, van der Kemp J, Dorresteijn M, Ten Brink AF, Nijboer TC, Visser-Meily JM, J Stroke Cerebrovasc Dis. 2017 Apr;26(4):686-700. doi: 10.1016/j.jstrokecerebrovasdis.2017.02.012. Epub 2017 Feb 23.