Encephalitis... how long does it take to recover? 

Most people's experience regarding illness and injury is one of temporary incapacity, followed by a gradual return to “normalcy.” When people are seriously ill, they go to a hospital and get better.   If a bone is broken, it is reset and put into a cast.  Therapy assists the return of muscle strength and after a few months the limb again functions normally. 

Recovery from encephalitis takes a different pathway.  The most dramatic recovery post-encephalitis happens in the first six to 18 months after the initial diagnosis.  After that time, the survivor will continue to recover old skills and learn new skills throughout her/his lifetime. 

When I was diagnosed with Herpes Simplex Encephalitis in 1999, my family was told that my recovery could be measured within the first two years.  After that point, there would be little if any further improvement.   I have focused on learning more about encephalitis by interacting daily with survivors, caregivers and loved ones.  I am co-founder and president of Encephalitis Global, Inc. (www.encephalitisglobal.org

Recent studies have focused on brain plasticity (neuroplasticity) - the ability of your brain to recover, repair, and regain functionality that had previously been lost.   What researchers have found is that there is NO limit or deadline to brain recovery. When a skill or ability has been lost due to brain injury, therapists have proven that through repeated therapy, new links in the brain can be created, allowing the brain to show more potential for recovery.
Improvement following the most common types of viral and arboviral encephalitis seems to follow a “three steps forward, one step back” approach.  A flurry of improvement may be followed by a step backward.   Encephalitis survivors are notoriously inconsistent in their progress at all stages. They may make progressive strides, do nothing for awhile, and then unexpectedly make a series of gains.   Something new in their life... a new friend/relationship, a new therapist or a new hobby or interest can spark progress as well.   Also, that “do nothing” stage is truly a time when the survivor is becoming more accustomed and comfortable using their newest knowledge or ability.  The brain is actually working behind the scenes to secure new pathways and make them permanent.  (Note:  Other types of encephalitis such as autoimmune encephalopathies have quite different time courses of recovery.)     

There are many information resources available to learn more about neuroplasticity.  One excellent resource to start with can be found at “Brain Plasticity: What Is It?”  (http://faculty.washington.edu/chudler/plast.html

Personally, I have continued to improve in the years following my illness.  One professional explained it to me like this: "Think of your brain like a road map; a thought is like a car following the simplest route.  For example, to drive from Vancouver Canada to Los Angeles California, the simplest and swiftest route is the I-5 highway. The impact of a brain injury is like having that I-5 highway destroyed. It's not impossible to reach Los Angeles from Vancouver, but you must find a new route, a longer route, perhaps zig-zagging across North America to make the connections to reach Los Angeles. But with time, and practice, you may still reach your destination."  

Wendy Station is an encephalitis survivor and President of Encephalitis Global, Inc. a USA nonprofit organization.

FACES 2009, Las Vegas, Nevada

FACES 2009, Las Vegas, Nevada