Virtual Reality Games Help Stroke Patients Regain Lost Mobility

Active video games have been a surprise hit with older adults!
Studies show that motion sensing games such as the Wii system
can provide a good moderate-intensity workout. Now, a new study
suggests that these games may have therapeutic benefit.

Playing tennis or peeling onions on Wii virtual reality videogames may help stroke patients with mild to moderate impairment regain their ability to use their arms and hands.

A study by Dr. Gustavo Saposnik, a neurologist at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto, is the first to show that virtual reality is a feasible, safe and potentially effective treatment of stroke. "This study takes us one step closer to understanding the potential benefits of using technology like the Wii in neurorehabilitation," says Dr. Saposnik.

The research team used Wii Sports Tennis and Cooking Mama to see if these games could help stroke patients improve their fine motor skills. The cooking game uses movements that replicate peeling an onion, cutting a potato, and shredding cheese.

The idea came to Dr. Saposnik while he was playing a friendly game of Wii tennis with his five-year-old daughter. At one point, his daughter said, "This is unfair—you have more skills than me!" So, being a left-handed player, Dr. Saposnik switched his virtual tennis racket to his right hand. "It was more challenging and I didn't win, but after a few games, I was improving. I realized that this could be something interesting in stroke rehab where people have lost those fine motor skills."

Researchers recruited patients who had recently suffered a stroke. Eligible subjects were randomized to either use the Wii, or to do traditional recreational therapy, which involves activities such as playing cards or bingo. Both groups also received the same amount of physiotherapy.

At the end of the trial, participants were asked to complete tasks to measure their abilities. The Wii group performed tasks faster, showing more improvement in their fine motor skills. They also had better grip strength.

The basic principles of rehabilitation involve repetition. Virtual reality games provide repetitive, high-intensity tasks that work to re-activate neurons involved in the brain. "By allowing the users to interact with a simulated environment, they receive instant feedback on their performance while making practice more interesting in a safe environment," said Dr. Saposnik.

With these promising pilot results, the research team is already working on a larger study. "For recovering stroke patients, this is something that, if proven effective, could be easily implemented in their rehab program while improving not only their motor skills, but also their quality of life," said Dr. Saposnik.


Source: St. Michael's Hospital. The information contained in this article is provided for reference and education only and is not intended to be a substitute for a physician's advice, diagnosis or treatment.