Virtual reality yields moderate improvements in helping in the recovery of stroke victims. Though the applications of this technology are in need of further investigation, virtual reality may be able to provide custom challenges and detailed documentation that would help speed stroke victims on the way to recovery.
Strokes are a leading cause of disability around the world. Victims of strokes can suffer from a wide array of disabilities that can seriously impinge upon their quality of life. Regaining the lost function of their mental and/or motor faculties takes many hours of dedicated therapy and practice. Many times barriers such as limited finances, environmental challenges, lack of support systems, and difficulty with maintaining motivation prohibit participation in therapy or reduce the efficacy of therapy. Because of this, researchers have turned to virtual reality to create more effective, immersive therapy sessions.
Virtual reality therapy sessions for stroke victims can come in many variations. Some patients have used commercial gaming systems such as Nintendo’s Wii, Sony’s Move, or Microsoft’s Kinetic gaming systems for patients that have suffered from motor function loss. Others set-ups have used robotic assistance or resistance to provide physical challenges for patients with increasing difficulty. Still others have used virtual environments and additional sensory feedback to enhance neural regeneration.
Virtual reality therapy offers several advantages over more traditional forms of therapy. To begin, virtual reality therapy sessions can be monitored and recorded to provide detailed feedback on a patient’s progress. The sessions can also be adjusted to give the patient an optimally challenging experience. Finally, many patients feel more motivated when immersed into a virtual reality environment.
A meta-analysis published this month in PLOS ONE reviewed the many studies that so far have examined the efficacy of virtual reality in helping recovering stroke victims. They concluded that the results are indicative of moderate success with helping patients regain mobility and coordination. There is even reason to consider that the use of virtual-reality-based post-stroke training modules may offer more benefits than more conventional therapy options.
These preliminary findings have thus far intrigued members of industry as well. Particularly note-worthy was the victory of five students from the University of Washington who won this year’s TechSandbox competition by inventing virtual reality games for the rehabilitation of stroke victims. These games were not only designed to enhance recovery, but also were used to deliver data on the speed of a patient’s motor recovery to their electronic medical records. This kind of technology would be particularly useful for allowing patients to work on their recovery in their familiar home environment. The students from the University of Washington certainly turned some heads with their inventions, and it is suspected that commercial developers will seize upon the idea as well.
Nonetheless, the use of virtual reality in the rehabilitation therapy of stoke victims needs further investigation. The results of the meta-analysis show that there simply have not yet been enough studies conducted on this matter, and that the sample populations have been consistently too small. Future studies will also have to factor in the importance of factors such as personal motivation, financial means, and environment to fully evaluate the efficacy of treating stroke victims with virtually-reality based therapies. They will also have to consider a way to standardize patient’s progress due to the fact that strokes can cause such a variety of unique conditions.
By Sarah Takushi