Could VR Games Speed Up Recovery For Stroke Survivors?

Did you know that every two seconds, someone has a stroke? As one of the key conditions that require rehabilitation, over half of all stroke patients need a course of long-term rehab in order to step back into everyday life. 

As we step into a new era of tech-infused healthcare, could immersive aids speed up the rehabilitation process? Transporting patients to an all-consuming environment where they can move and interact with their surroundings is not only more entertaining than traditional clinical methods but could speed up the rehabilitation of cognitive and coordination-based functions.

From VR gaming to immersive sports, there are plenty of ways to incorporate VR into a rehabilitation program. The question is, how effective are the results? Read on as we delve into the science behind VR-infused rehab and drop some of the best clinically approved games on the market. 

The science behind VR-infused rehab

Virtual reality encourages a user to engage all parts of their body. Blending cognitive and motor-based function, VR can be used to retrain the brain and build up sensorimotor strength.

SPECS lab, post-doctoral researcher Belén Rubio Ballester conducted a study on the effectiveness of a VR-powered rehab plan for stroke survivors. The 2019 study measured the motor recovery of 1473 stroke patients after introducing VR systems into their clinical rehabilitation plan.

Divided into two focus groups, half of the patients used a highstreet console, while the other half used a specifically designed VR system for stroke recovery. Measuring results such as upper-limb recovery, paretic arm use and the effects of increasing console difficulty, they determined that introducing VR to stroke recovery could be the key health practitioners have been hoping for. 

“Given our findings, we believe that VR systems, if purposefully realized for rehabilitation, are valuable tools for recovery. They are well-suited for patients because VR allows them to interact in a safe and entertaining environment, where the exposure to sensorimotor contingencies can be controlled and modulated in a goal-oriented and independent fashion based on scientifically valid principles of rehabilitation,” said Ballester. 

“Therefore, future studies should not ask if VR, or any other technology, is useful or not; instead, they should investigate those principles and mechanisms which are relevant for neurorehabilitation and which technology, including VR, is most appropriate to implement them.”

VR games for stroke rehabilitation 

The best VR games for stroke rehabilitation are those that engage the brain and the body at the same time. 

(Image Source: Silicon Republic)

For example, many clinical rehabilitation centres now use Punch The Boxer, a game designed specifically for stroke recovery. In this simulation, the patient is immersed in a boxing ring and can fight a virtual boxer.

With different difficulty ranges, this game measures limb strength and monitors coordination as the patient takes swings. 

Another great addition to stroke-based VR is Dragon Ball, a game where patients aim to throw a ball into a dragon’s mouth. 

As the mouth opens and closes at random times, the patient is measured on how quickly they react and coordinates the direction the ball needs to follow. This can help monitor the improvement of cognitive function while adding entertaining stimuli to the mix. 

Could VR-infused physical therapy be next? 

The healthcare industry continues to embrace digitalisation. From holographic surgery to online eye exams, new tech is constantly transforming how we treat patients. The question is, could VR take this one step further? 

The benefits of VR are endless, but one feature, in particular, renders it the perfect physical therapy partner, immersivity. 

As stroke patients re-learn everyday tasks, VR can help transport them to the destination of the task at hand, improving realism and aiding cognitive stimulation. For example, patients can find themselves in a bathroom while they learn to brush their teeth or in a restaurant while having food. Virtual reality bridges a gap between rehabilitation and real life, allowing the patient to feel more independent as they re-learn their favourite tasks. 

One example of a VR-powered physical therapy exercise is opening and closing a tap. Using motion sensors, VR can aid turning practice without physically using a tap.

Another great exercise is the VR ‘paper cutter’. With a drawing projected in front of them, the patient is asked to cut the drawing within the lines using a virtual paper cutter. This is safer than introducing scissors and can be repeated over and over again. 

As more clinics introduce virtual reality rehab suites, technology is quickly becoming an essential component of stroke recovery. The question is, where could immersive tech go next in the healthcare industry? From TBIs to amputation rehab, the possibilities are endless.