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Virtual Reality Tools May Aid Stroke Recovery

Studies Show High-Tech Gadgets Help Stroke Patients Improve Their Motor Strength

By Brenda Goodman
WebMD Health News

Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

April 7, 2011 -- Physical therapy that makes use of high-tech gadgets like 3-D goggles, robotic gloves, and motion-tracking video game systems can help people regain strength and function in their upper arm after a stroke, a new research review shows.

Pooling data from five studies, researchers found that people who participated in rehabilitation with virtual reality technologies after a stroke had a nearly fivefold greater chance of improving their motor strength compared to those who received conventional physical therapy.

In general, the virtual therapies are designed specifically to aid stroke recovery. They include activities like playing virtual piano keys while wearing a robotic glove or swatting at virtual bugs while wearing 3D goggles.

"This technology gets people to work more and harder and be more creative," says study researcher Mindy Levin, PhD, a professor in the School of Physical and Occupational Therapy at McGill University in Montreal. "And all of that taps into the brain's plasticity and helps the brain change -- and that's what we're trying to do."

Physical Therapy After a Stroke

Studies estimate 55% to 75% of patients who survive a stroke will struggle with motor deficits, including paralysis, weakness, and trouble with coordination.

Physical and occupational therapy can help people who have had strokes, the researchers write, though the improvements are typically modest.

A growing body of research suggests that the brain often has the ability to compensate for damage. But it takes intensive, repetitive work to realize those gains, and that's where some experts think traditional approaches fall short.

"What we know about brain plasticity is that it takes so much exercise and so much commitment to make the brain change," Levin says. "The health care system isn't set up to give all the therapy that is necessary, and I don't think we're meeting the potential."

Virtual tools, Levin says, "will help us to meet that challenge of delivering more therapy to patients in a friendly way that's more accessible to people."

The Role of Virtual Therapy

For the review, researchers searched three medical libraries for studies on virtual technologies in stroke patients. Twelve studies were included in the analysis. Participants in the studies ranged in age from 26 to 88.

Three studies focused on patients who'd had recent strokes, while the other nine enrolled those who'd had their strokes four to six weeks beforehand. Most interventions in the review lasted four to six weeks.

In combining results from observational studies, researchers found that participants using virtual therapies had about a 15% improvement in motor impairment and a 20% improvement in motor function in the arm affected by the stroke.

Virtual tools, Levin says, "will help us to meet that challenge of delivering more therapy to patients in a friendly way that's more accessible to people."

The study was published in the journal Stroke.

SOURCES: Saposnik, G. Stroke, May 2011.Mindy Levin, PhD, professor, School of Physical and Occupational Therapy, McGill University, Montreal.

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