Stroke: Physiotherapy Treatment Approaches

Introduction[edit | edit source]


A wide range of treatment techniques and approaches from different philisophical backgrounds are utilised in Neurological Rehabilitation. Research to support the different approaches varies hugely, with a wealth of research to support the use of some techniques while other approaches have limited evidence to support its use but rely on ancedotal evidence.

This page provides a brief overview of some of the approaches used in Stroke Rehabilitation with evidence based clinical guideline recommendations.

State of the Evidence[edit | edit source]

The past decade has seen an exponential growth in the number of randomised control trials (RCT) in relation to physiotherapy interventions utilised in Stroke. Veerbeek et al (2014) highlight that the number of RCTs on "Stroke Interventions" has almost quadrupled in the past 10 years, with strong evidence seen in 30 out of 53 interventions for beneficial effects on one or more outcomes. The main changes lie in the increased number of interventions to which ‘strong evidence’ could be assigned and an increase in the number of outcomes for which the findings are statistically significant. [1]

  • Higher intensity of practice appears to be an important aspect of effective physical therapy and suggestion is that intensity of practice is a key factor in meaningful training after stroke, and that more practice is better.
  • 17 hours of therapy over a 10 week period has been found to be necessary for significant positive effects at both the body function level as well as activities and participation level of the ICF.

Physiotherapy Challenges[edit | edit source]

Time Poor?

The National Clinical Guidelines advocate for at least 45 mins of therapy daily as long as there are rehabilitation goals ( providing the patient tolerates this intensity), and recognition that high-intensity practice is better. However there still remains a big contrast between the recommended and actual applied therapy time. Recent surveys in the Netherlands and UK significantly fall short of the recommended 45 mins daily. :

  • Netherlands patients admitted to a hospital stroke unit only received a mean of 22 minutes of physical therapy on weekdays.
  • United Kingdom inpatients received 30.6 minutes physical therapy per day.[1]

High growth in evidence creates challenges for physiotherapists in keeping up to date with new evidence as it becomes available.

  • There is a need for further investigation into more effective and efficient methods for physiotherapists to keep their knowledge and skill level up-to-date in the long term.[1]
  • Further research to support physiotherapy implementation strategies in order to optimize the transfer of scientific knowledge into clinical practice is required.

Interventions[edit | edit source]

Positioning[edit | edit source]

Ability to change position and posture is affected in many individuals post stroke as a result of varying degrees of physical impairments. See Stroke: Positioning

Practice Statement
Consensus-based Recommendation

  1. Initial specialist assessment for positioning should occur in acute stroke as soon as possible and where possible within 4 hours of arrival at hospital.
  2. Arm Support devices such as a Lap Tray may be used to assist with arm positioning for those at risk of shoulder subluxation
  3. Education and training around correct manual handling and positioning should be provided to the individual with stroke, their family/carer and health professionals, particularly nursing and other allied health staff. [2]
  4. Elevation of the limb when resting should be considered for individuals who are immobile to prevent swelling in the hand and foot. [3]

Early Mobilisation[edit | edit source]

Immobility is associated with a number of post stroke complications such as deep vein thrombosis etc. See Implementing an Early Mobility Programme for Critically Ill Patients.

Strong Recommendation FOR

  1. Patients with difficulty moving after stroke should be assessed as soon as possible within the first 24 hours of onset by an appropriately trained healthcare professional to determine the most appropriate and safe methods of transfer and mobilisation. [4]
  2. Commence mobilisation (out of bed activity) within 24 - 48 hrs of stroke onset unless receiving palliative care.[2] [4]

Strong Recommendation AGAINST

  1. Starting intensive out of bed activities within 24 hours of stroke onset is not recommended. Mobilisation within 24 hours of onset should only be for patients who require little or no assistance to mobilise. [2] [4]

Balance[edit | edit source]

Balance training

Balance difficulties are common for many individuals post stroke usually due to a combination of reduced limb and trunk motor control, altered sensation and sometimes centrally determined alteration in body representation such that the person misperceives their posture in relation to the upright. Impaired balance often leads to reduced confidence, fear of falling and increases the risk of falls. Current evidence suggests that trunk exercise training improve trunk performance and dynamic sitting balance [5], while task specific training improves dynamic balance in both sitting and standing.[6] [4] [2] [1]

Sitting[edit | edit source]

Strong Recommendation

Practising reaching beyond arm’s length while sitting with supervision/assistance should be undertaken for individuals who have difficulty with sitting. [5]

Standing[edit | edit source]

Strong Recommendation

Practice of standing balance should be provided for individuals who have difficulty with standing. Strategies could include:

  1. Practising functional task-specific training while standing [7] [1] [8] [6]
  2. Walking training that includes challenge to standing balance (e.g. overground walking, obstacle courses) [8]
  3. Providing visual or auditory feedback [2] [1] [9]
  4. Receive progressive balance training
  5. Receive lower limb strengthening exercises [4]
  6. Consider for an ankle-foot orthosis [10]

Gait & Mobility[edit | edit source]

The highest priority for many people with limited mobility after stroke is to walk independently. If walking performance is poor after stroke, community activity may be limited and people may become housebound and isolated from society[4]. See Gait Training in Stroke

Strong Recommendation

Tailored repetitive practice of walking (or components of walking) should be practiced as often as possible for individuals with difficulty walking. The following modalities can be used to achieve this:[2]

  1. Circuit Class Therapy (with a focus on overground walking practice) [11] 
  2. Treadmill Training with or without body weight support [12]
  3. Virtual Reality Training [13] [14]

Weak Recommendation

Other interventions may be used in addition to those above:

  1. Electromechanically Assisted Gait Training [15]
  2. Biofeedback [16]
  3. Cueing of Cadence [17]
  4. Functional Electrical Stimulation [18]

Treadmill Training[edit | edit source]

Treadmill walking

Treadmill training can be utilised for both Gait Re-education / Training but also to aid improvements in aerobic function. Treadmill training can be completed with the patient’s body-weight partially supported by a harness in order to grade the amount of body weight supported, which is used for individuals with significant functional limitations. See Gait training in stroke.

Moderate Recommendation

  1. People who are able to walk independently after stroke should be offered treadmill training with or without body weight support or other walking-orientated interventions at a higher intensity than usual care and as an adjunct to other treatments. [4] (Level 1)

Electromechanical Assisted[edit | edit source]


Electromechanical-assisted gait training, with and without partial body weight support as well as with or without FES, are used as adjuncts to overground gait training for the rehabilitation of patients after stroke and can be used to give non-ambulatory patients intensive practice (in terms of high repetitions) of complex gait cycles. Automated electromechanical gait machines consist either of a robot-driven exoskeleton orthosis or an electromechanical solution with two driven foot-plates simulating the phases of gait and offer reduced effort for therapists, as they no longer need to set the paretic limbs or assist trunk movements. The main difference between electromechanical-assisted and treadmill training is that the process of gait training is automated and supported by an electromechanical solution. Current research indicates that repetitive gait training in combination with physiotherapy may improve walking ability in patients after stroke.[19]See Robotic Rehabilitation for the Lower Extremity

Moderate Recommendation

  1. People who cannot walk independently after stroke should be considered for electromechanical-assisted gait training including body weight support. [4] (Level 1)

Rhythmic Cueing[edit | edit source]


Motor Control research provides considerable evidence that auditory rhythm can improve timing and variability of motor responses, specifically, in motor tasks with complex timing requirements or in disorders affecting timing of movement, external rhythm can provide additional stability to timekeeper mechanisms in the brain. [20]See link.

Moderate Recommendation

  1. Cueing of Cadence can be utilised in addition to conventional gait training for increased stride length and gait speed. [21] [3] (Level 1)

Virtual Reality[edit | edit source]

Virtual Reality

Advances in virtual reality technology mean that devices using computer and gaming technology, such as the Nintendo Wii ®, are now found in many people’s homes. The potential of these types of adjuncts to maximize task-orientated practice and increase energy expenditure are beginning to be explored.  See Virtual Reality for Individuals Affected by Stroke

Moderate Recommendation

  1. Virtual Reality Training can be utilised in addition to conventional gait training. [2]

Overground Walking[edit | edit source]

4 Point Walker

Overground walking involves walking and walking-related activities on a solid surface, where the physiotherapist observes the patient’s gait, usually on a level surface, and has the patient do a range of different activities and exercises to influence their gait. The benefit is that over- ground gait training can be used in almost any setting or location without requiring a great deal of high-tech equipment. [22]  

Moderate Recommendation

  1. It has been demonstrated that overground gait training by stroke patients who are able to walk without physical support is more effective in increasing walking distance and reducing anxiety than walking on a treadmill. (Level 1) [22]

Community Walking[edit | edit source]

Weak Recommendation

  1. Individualised goals should be set and assistance with adaptive equipment, information, and further referral on to other agencies should be provided for individuals who have difficulty with outdoor mobility in the community.
  2. Walking practice may benefit some individuals and if provided, should occur in a variety of community settings and environments, and may also incorporate virtual reality training that mimics community walking. [23] [2]

Orthotics[edit | edit source]

Introduction to Orthotics, may be an intervention designed to: change body structures; support and stabilize unresponsive muscles so an activity can be performed; be an adjunct to enable participation in a life role eg work. See Link.

KNGF Clinical Guidelines recommends trial of Ankle Foot Orthotic for patients whose safe and/or efficient walking ability is impeded by drop foot during the swing phase of walking following Multidisciplinary consultation. [22]

Weak Recommendation

  1. Individually fitted lower limb orthoses may be used to minimises limitations in walking ability. Improvement in walking will only occur while the orthosis is being worn. [24] [2] [25]

Upper Limb[edit | edit source]

Up to 85% of individuals post stroke experience altered arm function, with approximately 40% of individuals being affected by upper limb function long term. Loss of arm function adversely affects quality of life, and functional motor recovery in affected upper extremities in patients with hemiplegia is the primary goal of physical therapists. "Currently there is no high quality evidence for any interventions that are routine practice, and evidence is insufficient to enable comparison of the relative effectiveness of interventions.” In other words, the evidence is insufficient to show which of the interventions are the most effective for improving upper limb function” [4]

Strong Recommendation

  1. People with stroke with potential or actual arm movement should be given every opportunity to practice functional activities that incorporate movements that are of high intensity, repetitive and are task-specific. These activities may be bilateral or unilateral depending on the task. [4]

Bilateral Arm Training[edit | edit source]

Bilateral Arm Training provides intensive training of bilateral coordination to enable practice of bimanual skills. During bilateral arm training, movement patterns or activities are performed with both hands simultaneously but independent from each other and can also be cyclic. This approach was developed in response to identified limitations of Constraint Induced Movement Therapy (CIMT) which precludes the opportunity to practice bilateral skills particularly functional activities that are inherently bimanual. Unilateral and bilateral training are similarly effective. However, intervention success may depend on severity of upper limb paresis and time of intervention post-stroke.

Weak Recommendation

  1. Bilateral arm training may be used as part of comprehensive goal directed rehabilitation. However, when matched for dosage, unilateral training may be more effective. [1] [26] [27] [2]

Constraint Induced Movement Therapy[edit | edit source]

Constraint-induced movement therapy (CIMT) involves intensive targeted practice with the affected limb while restraining the non-affected limb, which means that during task-specific practice, individuals with hemiplegic stroke are forced to use their affected limb. See Constraint Induced Movement Therapy

Original CIMT Applied for 2 to 3 weeks consisting of immobilization of the non-paretic arm with a padded mitt for 90% of waking hours utilising task-oriented training with a high number of repetitions for 6 hours a day; and behavioral strategies to improve both compliance and transfer of the activities practiced from the clinical setting to the patient’s home environment.

High-intensity mCIMT Consists of immobilization of the non-paretic arm with a padded mitt for 90% of waking hours with between 3 to 6 hours of task-oriented training a day. Found to be more beneficial in the acute stage pf rehabilitation with less effect on chronic upper limb impairment.

Low-intensity mCIMT Consisted of immobilization of the non-paretic arm with a padded mitt for > 0% to < 90% of waking hours with between 0 to 3 hours of task-oriented training a day. 

Strong Recommendations

  1. Intensive Constraint Induced Movement Therapy (minimum 2 hours of active therapy per day for 2 weeks, plus restraint for at least 6 hours a day) should be provided to improve arm and hand use for individuals with 20 degrees of active wrist extension and 10 degrees of active finger extension. [28] [4] [2]
  2. Trunk restraint may also be incorporated into the active therapy sessions at any stage post-stroke. [29] [2]

Electrical Stimulation[edit | edit source]

Functional Electrical Stimulation appears to moderately improve upper limb activity compared with both no intervention and training alone. Current evidence suggest that electrical stimulation should be used in stroke rehabilitation to improve the ability to perform functional upper limb activities. See Electrical Stimulation

Strong Recommendation

  1. Use of electrical stimulation in conjunction with motor training should be used to improve upper limb function after stroke . [30] [2]

Robot Assisted Arm Training[edit | edit source]

Robot-mediated treatment utilises automated devices to provide passive, active or resistive limb movement which could allow for extended periods of treatment and treatments that are responsive to the particular needs of the individual by using the person’s movement as feedback, as ability changes over time. There is currently conflicting evidence as there is still limited evidence to suggest when or how often robot assisted arm movement should be used. People with reduced arm function after a stroke should only be offered robot-assisted movement therapy or neuromuscular electrical stimulation as an adjunct to conventional therapy in the context of a clinical trial. [31] [4]

See Robotic Rehabilitation Lower Extremity and Upper Extremity

Strong Recommendation

  1. Robot /Mechanical assisted arm training should be used to improve upper limb function in individuals with mild to severe arm weakness after stroke "as an adjunct to conventional therapy in the context of a clinical trial". [2]

Virtual Reality[edit | edit source]

The evidence base for virtual reality and interactive video gaming-based interventions for the arm (as an adjunct to usual care to increase overall therapy time) is developing, though studies are often of low quality and further research is needed.

Strong Recommendation

  1. Virtual Reality and interactive games should be used to improve upper limb function in individuals with mild to moderate arm impairment after stroke. Virtual reality therapy should be provided for at least 15 hours total therapy time. [32] [2]

Mirror Therapy[edit | edit source]

Weak Recommendation

  1. Mirror Therapy may be used as an adjunct to routine therapy to improve arm function after stroke for individuals with mild to moderate weakness, complex regional pain syndrome and/or neglect. [33] [2]

Mental Practice[edit | edit source]

Motor imagery (MI) is a mental process of rehearsal for a given action in order to improve motor function while Mental Practice (MP) is a training method during which a person cognitively rehearses a physical skill using MI in the absence of overt, physical movements for the purpose of enhancing motor skill performance.  See Mental Imagery

Weak Recommendation

  1. Mental practice, where no cognitive impairment exists, in conjunction with active motor training may be used to improve arm function for individuals with mild to moderate weakness of their arm. [34] [35] [36] [4] [2] 

Splinting[edit | edit source]

Strong Recommendation AGAINST

  1. Routine practice should not include Hand and wrist orthoses (splints) as they have no effect on function, pain or range of movement. [37] [2]

Cardiorespiratory Training[edit | edit source]

There is an increasing range of aerobic exercise options being accessed by people with following Stroke. These range from aerobic exercise programmes (e.g. overground walking or treadmill training programmes) and an array of sporting and exercise classes to the use of technology (e.g. virtual reality training). These options, supported by the growing body of evidence, present the therapist and patient with the ability to select a programme for an individual, which is timely and can be carried out in an appropriate environment. See Stroke: The Role of Physical Activity

Strong Recommendation

  1. Rehabilitation should include individually tailored exercise interventions to improve cardiorespiratory fitness.[2]

Practice Statement
Consensus-based Recommendations

  1. Commence cardiorespiratory training during their inpatient stay.
  2. Encourage to participate in ongoing regular physical activity regardless of level of disability.[2]

Strength Training[edit | edit source]

Strong Recommendation

  1. Progressive resistance training should be offered to those with reduced strength in their arms or legs. [2]

Circuit Class[edit | edit source]

Van de Port et al (2012) found that task oriented circuit training in patients with mild to moderate disability after stroke is safe and as effective as an individually tailored face to face treatment in the first six months after stroke but was not superior to usual care in terms of self reported mobility according to the mobility domain of the stroke impact scale. Circuit training did prove more effective in terms of walking speed, stair walking, and walking distance, though differences were small; 9 cm/s for walking speed and 20 m for walking distance, respectively. [38] There is also growing evidence that circuit training is effective at improving the walking competency of patients in the chronic phase of stroke. The benefit of Circuit Training is Another important aspect of the task oriented circuit training is that it is offered in groups ranging from two to eight patients, lowering ratios of staff to patients and therefore a possible more cost effective treatment. [39]

Hydrotherapy[edit | edit source]

Immersion in water can enhance the treatment of neurologically impaired individuals with both therapeutic, psychological and social benefits. Hydrotherapy is the term used for exercise in warm water and is a popular treatment for patients with neurologic and musculoskeletal conditions and is defined by the Hydrotherapy Association of Chartered Physiotherapists Guidance on Good Practice in Hydrotherapy as a therapy programme using the properties of water, designed by a suitably qualified physiotherapist, to improve function, ideally in a purpose-built and suitably heated hydrotherapy pool [40] [41]

Merholz et al (2011) found insufficient evidence to conclude that water-based activities for people after stroke are effective for reducing disability but likewise found insufficient evidence to conclude that water-based exercises are ineffective or even harmful [42]. A recent RCT showed positive results and a large improvement in high level balance and walking function after a 4-week hydrotherapy programme. Further research is required which needs to focus on higher quand larger RCTs to evaluate the effectiveness of water-based exercises for people after stroke.[43] A randomised control trial suggests that aquatic therapy has positive outcomes, contributing to improving patients' mood and quality of life with acquired brain injury[44].

Electrotherapy[edit | edit source]

Weak Recommendation

  1. Electrical stimulation may be used for those with reduced strength in their arms or legs (particularly for those with less than antigravity strength).
  2. Electrical stimulation may be used to prevent or reduce shoulder subluxation. [45] [2]

Spasticity Management[edit | edit source]

There is considerable debate on the definition, physiological nature and importance of spasticity. Spasticity can cause discomfort or pain for the and can be associated with activity limitation. Spasticity is common, especially in a non-functional arm with close association between spasticity and other impairments of arm function and mobility. [4]

Stretch[edit | edit source]

Stretch may be applied in a number of ways during neurological rehabilitation to achieve different effects. The types of stretching used include; Fast / Quick, Prolonged and Maintained. Currently the evidence for stretching in stroke rehabilitation is weak in relation to its use in spasticity management.

Weak Recommendation AGAINST

  1. Routine use of stretch to reduce spasticity is not recommended.
  2. Adjunct therapies to Botulinum toxinum A such as electrical stimulation, casting, taping and stretching may be used to reduce spasticity. [2]

Botulinum Toxin[edit | edit source]

Muscle Relaxant Medication can be injected into overactive spastic muscles to locally block spasticity. See link.

Weak Recommendation

  1. Botulinum Toxin A in addition to rehabilitation therapy may be used to reduce upper limb spasticity but is unlikely to improve functional activity or motor function. [46]
  2. Botulinum Toxin A in addition to rehabilitation therapy may be useful for improving muscle tone in patients with lower limb spasticity but is unlikely to improve motor function or walking. [2]

Contracture Management[edit | edit source]

A muscle contracture is a permanent shortening of a muscle or joint. It is usually in response to prolonged hypertonic spasticity in a concentrated muscle area. Contractures are not uncommon in limbs affected by spasticity. Contractures can impede activities such as washing or putting on clothes, and may also be uncomfortable or painful and limit the ability to sit in a wheelchair or mobilise.A Systematic Review to determine whether stretch increases joint mobility in people with existing contractures or those at risk of developing contractures provides moderate to high quality evidence that stretch, whether passive or through the means of splint or seriel casting, does not have a clinically important effect on joint mobility in people with neurological conditions. 

Strong Recommendation AGAINST

  1. For people with stroke at risk of developing contracture, routine use of splints or prolonged positioning of upper or lower limb muscles in a lengthened position (stretch) is not recommended. [47] [2] [48]

Practice Statement
Consensus-based Recommendations

  1. For stroke survivors, serial casting may be trialled to reduce severe, persistent contracture when conventional therapy has failed. [2]
  2. For stroke survivors at risk of developing contracture or who have developed contracture, active motor training to elicit muscle activity should be provided. [2]

Fatigue Management[edit | edit source]

Fatigue is common complaint post-stroke, and is evident even in those individuals who have made an otherwise complete recovery. Over 40% of long-term stroke survivors report ongoing issues with fatigue which impact on their daily living activities with lack of energy and/or an increased need to rest every day, as the main characteristics which can be brought on by both mental and physical activity. Fatigue has also been associated with depression, and may be a predictor of shorter survival. [4] [2] Management strategies include the identification of triggers and re-energisers, environmental modifications and lifestyle changes, scheduling and pacing, cognitive strategies to reduce mental effort, and psychological support to address mood, stress and adjustment. [4] [49]

Strong Recommendation 

  1. Individuals with stroke who are medically stable but who report fatigue should be offered an assessment for mental and physical factors that may be contributing, particularly when engagement with rehabilitation or quality of life is affected. [4]

Practice Statement
Consensus-based Recommendations

  1. Therapy for stroke survivors with fatigue should be organised for periods of the day when they are most alert.
  2. Information and education about fatigue should be provided to individuals with Stroke and their Families/Carers. [4]
  3. Potential modifying factors for fatigue should be considered including avoiding sedating drugs and alcohol, screening for sleep- related breathing disorders and depression
  4. While there is insufficient evidence to guide practice, possible interventions could include exercise and improving sleep hygiene [2]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 Veerbeek JM, van Wegen E, van Peppen R, van der Wees PJ, Hendriks E, Rietberg M, Kwakkel G. What is the evidence for physical therapy poststroke? A systematic review and meta-analysis. PloS one. 2014 Feb 4;9(2):e87987.
  2. 2.00 2.01 2.02 2.03 2.04 2.05 2.06 2.07 2.08 2.09 2.10 2.11 2.12 2.13 2.14 2.15 2.16 2.17 2.18 2.19 2.20 2.21 2.22 2.23 2.24 2.25 2.26 2.27 2.28 Stroke Foundation. DRAFT Clinical Guidelines for Stroke Management 2017. Summary of Recommendations.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Clinical Guidelines for Stroke Management A Quick Guide for Physiotherapy. National Stroke Foundation, Australia, 2010.
  4. 4.00 4.01 4.02 4.03 4.04 4.05 4.06 4.07 4.08 4.09 4.10 4.11 4.12 4.13 4.14 4.15 4.16 4.17 Intercollegiate Stroke Working Party. National Clinical Guideline for Stroke Fifth Edition. 2016
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  7. Bang DH, Cho HS. Effect of body awareness training on balance and walking ability in chronic stroke patients: a randomized controlled trial. Journal of physical therapy science. 2016;28(1):198-201.
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  9. Stanton R, Ada L, Dean CM, Preston E. Biofeedback improves activities of the lower limb after stroke: a systematic review. Journal of physiotherapy. 2011 Dec 31;57(3):145-55.
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  14. Rodrigues-Baroni JM, Nascimento LR, Ada L, Teixeira-Salmela LF. Walking training associated with virtual reality-based training increases walking speed of individuals with chronic stroke: systematic review with meta-analysis. Brazilian journal of physical therapy. 2014 Dec;18(6):502-12.
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  17. Nascimento LR, de Oliveira CQ, Ada L, Michaelsen SM, Teixeira-Salmela LF. Walking training with cueing of cadence improves walking speed and stride length after stroke more than walking training alone: a systematic review. Journal of physiotherapy. 2015 Jan 31;61(1):10-5.
  18. Howlett OA, Lannin NA, Ada L, McKinstry C. Functional electrical stimulation improves activity after stroke: a systematic review with meta-analysis. Archives of physical medicine and rehabilitation. 2015 May 31;96(5):934-43.
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  35. Page SJ, Peters H. Mental practice: applying motor PRACTICE and neuroplasticity principles to increase upper extremity function. Stroke. 2014;45(11):3454-60.
  36. Liu H, Song LP, Zhang T. Mental practice combined with physical practice to enhance hand recovery in stroke patients. Behavioural neurology. 2014 Nov 9;2014.
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