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Virtual Reality Tools May Aid Stroke Recovery

Studies Show High-Tech Gadgets Help Stroke Patients Improve Their Motor Strength
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 randomized, controlled trials, researchers found that people who participated in rehabilitation with virtual reality technologies after a stroke had a nearly 5-fold higher chance of improving their motor strength compared to people in control groups, who received either conventional physical therapy or played sham video games.

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.”

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