Virtual Reality Games Help Stroke Rehab Patients
Physical rehabilitation is, of course, a necessary part of post-stroke therapy for many people. However necessary it might be, though, it is seldom described as fun. Now technology from the entertainment world may be changing that, making rehab more enjoyable and possibly more effective. Researchers at Hampton University in Virginia did a small study on patients in physical therapy for stroke rehab using virtual reality (VR) games, the type of games in which players wear a headpiece that projects them onto the screen as part of the action. The study had striking results - not only did the VR patients show improved physical skills, they also had important changes in their brain.
The research team established two groups - five patients who used VR games for one hour a day, five days a week for one month... and a control group of five who received no intervention. Average patient age was 57, and all participants had had a stroke at least one year prior to the study. The VR group used three games - all of which served to build range of motion, balance, mobility, stepping skills and walking through a variety of motions including weight shifting, squatting, jumping, flexing and extending the legs, and lateral bending. The research team discovered that the VR group improved in functional ambulation - how well a person can walk independently - by 23% over the control group, and on a scale that evaluates the patients' ability to stand, walk and go up and down steps, by 17.4%. Through brain scans, they also saw that the brains of all five patients had reorganized and once again showed patterns that are associated with improved gait and locomotor function.
I spoke with the study's lead author Sung H. You, PT, PhD, assistant professor of physical therapy at Hampton. He first explained that these are not games from your local video store - they were specifically developed for medical use. Patients needed three or four sessions to learn how to play them, but once they did, he says the activity became most enjoyable. The games also can be customized to increase challenges to adjust to patients' growing skill levels. However, he emphasizes that VR physical therapy is something patients must do under the supervision of a doctor or physical therapist. The games require patients to move their bodies - exercise being the point - and there is the danger of falling or of learning to move in an abnormal way, which could make the problem worse.
The use of the games is not yet FDA-approved, but they are available to physical therapists as yet another tool in rebuilding motor skills post-stroke. Dr. You says he thinks of them as next-generation physical therapy tools and he adds that his team feels privileged to have them.
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