Virtual reality may sound like something out of a science fiction novel, but therapists have recently been using this technology to help stroke victims overcome motor skills deficits. It sounds funny and a touch unreal, but video games with interactive inputs are truly helping stroke victims in ways that simple physical therapy does not. Although this is certainly not a standard treatment for stroke deficits, many researchers are using it more frequently to help with specific stroke-related problems.
You may not be able to find this pricey technology at your local hospital, but if you live near a large teaching and research hospital, you may be able to become a pioneer in this new therapy. In addition to your traditional physical therapy, you can use the new technology to improve your motor skills, strengthen muscles, and rebuild neural connections in the brain. You should look into this treatment if you’ve found that traditional physical therapy is not helping you recover your abilities.
Types of Treatment
Virtual reality treatment can be used in a variety of ways. First, you can wear goggles that project a virtual environment for you to manipulate. By wearing these goggles and manipulating items in that world, you help to reestablish connections between neurons in your brains. This differs from traditional therapy because the tasks in the virtual world can be calibrated to your needs. For instance, you can focus on lifting a glass that has no weight, but you will still be using the muscles and brain processes that are required to perform the action.
A second use for virtual reality is the use of a robotic glove. This device is placed over the effected hand, and you can perform tasks, such as playing a virtual piano, that would not be possible in a non-virtual environment. For instance, it may be easier to press the keys or the keys will respond to the slightest movement of your hand. This has much the same benefit as biofeedback has in decreasing pain. By seeing how you can easily manipulate the virtual world, you can build up the strength in your hands and the connections in your brain.
How It Helps Stroke Victims
It is estimated that 55 to 65 percent of stroke victims will suffer some sort of neuromuscular impairment. This can be paralysis in a limb, muscle weakness, contracture, and trouble with coordination of the effected limb. In many cases, traditional physical and occupational therapy can only restore modest gains to the limb. This is with focused, dedicated attention to physical therapy and the time investment that it entails.
With virtual reality therapy, the gains may generally be more pronounced and quicker. The secret to restoring movement to a limb after an acute stroke is repetition. This means doing hundreds of the same exercise to achieve a moderate gain. The virtual reality environment allows a stroke victim to quickly and easily do an exercise according to their own abilities. The computer resets the exercise and allows for much more repetition than traditional therapy. In addition, even minor movements can count for a repetition, when physical therapy would not be able to account for that slight motion.
Scientific research supports the fact that virtual reality therapy can be more helpful than traditional therapy. A review of all virtual reality research published in the journal Stroke in 2011 found that most patients experienced a 15 percent improvement in motor impairment and a 20 percent improvement in motor function. These studies focused on patients from their early 20s to their 80s, and it also included patients who had recent strokes and strokes over six months before the testing. All participants showed improvement over traditional physical therapy.
More research needs to be conducted on this new technology to see if it can be of benefit to stroke victims. The expense of the equipment and the reluctance of older patients to use a high tech alternative could be possible stumbling blocks to further research into the efficacy of this system. With time, though, the novelty of virtual reality therapy should decrease, patients will become more comfortable with the technology, and more people will be able to benefit from the clear motor improvement in acute stroke patients.
WebMD; Virtual Reality Tools May Aid Stroke Recovery; Brenda Goodman, MA; April 2011