Virtual reality in post-stroke rehabilitation: where is this technology taking us?

March 19, 2018

Post-stroke rehabilitation isn’t what it used to be. And before anyone gets nostalgic, we mean this in a positive way. It’s an evolving science, a discipline that shows a willingness to adopt new technologies (such as virtual reality [VR]) and techniques at both the acute and chronic stages of a stroke. All this while continuing to develop the conventional approaches that have provided a foundation for recovery in millions of stroke sufferers. But while these traditional approaches continue to provide benefit to patients, there has always been a limiting factor — time. Specifically, time spent with a therapist who can provide guidance and feedback on your training program. But this, like so many areas of rehabilitation, is evolving.

A team of researchers from across Europe has been investigating the use of VR systems to guide arm and hand exercises and provide feedback in post-stroke rehabilitation. This technique is known as reinforced feedback in virtual environments (RFVE). It isn’t intended to replace time spent with a therapist. However, it could support recovery when added to a structured rehabilitation program.

How the study worked

The researchers recruited 136 patients, all of whom had experienced a stroke within the previous 12 months and still retained some motor function in their upper limb. Researchers split the patients into two groups. One group received one daily session of conventional therapy supported by one daily session of VR (using the specialized medical virtual reality rehabilitation system [VRRS] and ‘games’ selected by therapists). The other received two daily sessions of conventional therapy alone. And the results were remarkable. After four weeks, almost 80% of patients in the VR group showed better than minimum levels of improvement. 

The patients in the VR group didn’t suffer any side effects or report any discomfort. Factors such as age, gender, or type of stroke (clot or bleeding) did not seem to limit recovery. However, patients who had a left-brain stroke, and when the stroke was more recent, showed more significant improvements. Also, patients who got the VR therapy in the first 6 months after the stroke showed the best results.

So check with your therapist if VR rehabilitation is available near you. It’s safe and holds much promise!

The lead author of this study is Pawel Kiper, Laboratory of kinematics and robotics, IRCCS San Camillo Hospital Foundation, Venice, Italy.

What you can do with this information

Editorial note:

Virtual reality can be an effective addition to your rehabilitation program.

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