Senior Health: Virtual Reality A New Key to Stroke Recovery


3-D glasses may soon be for more than movies. A breakthrough new study leverages technology to help stroke survivors recover motor control in a “virtual reality” form of physical therapy.

In conventional stroke therapy, a professional therapist moves a patient’s limb while telling them to think about that action. This helps activate parts of the brain that may have been damaged by the stroke, while also helping muscles regain strength.

Variations of this therapy involve electrical stimulation to contract the muscles, or even using a robotic device in place of a human being to help the patient perform repetitive functions and re-build muscle memory.

Stroke Therapy, Revisited
In a new, high tech variation of these rehabilitation exercises, devised by University of Minnesota-Twin Cities researchers, a virtual reality program simulates real life objects and actions so stroke rehab patience can “practice” common movements. Patients think about an action and the VR program detects those thoughts, imposing those motions on a set of photorealistic, 3-dimensional hands.

In a study involving six stroke survivors, patients had a success rate of 81 percent in using the VR hands to pick up a glass of water or a cup of tea.

Applications in Assisted Living Communities and Nursing Homes
While VR probably won’t replace the all-important human touch involved in physical therapy of any kind, the software program and VR hardware device could have time- and money-saving applications in assisted living centers and nursing homes with a large contingent of elderly stroke survivors.

The patients in the UM study experienced improvements in actual movements of affected limbs after just two or three sessions. Used in conjunction with other therapy techniques, VR stroke therapy can reduce the strain on nursing home staff, letting patients “practice” these techniques with minimal supervision.

Additionally, because the system could be small, portable and affordable, it could eliminate the need for stroke survivors to travel to an off-site rehab center for this particular form of stroke therapy.

Seniors and Strokes: A Population at Risk
Being over the age of 55, especially for males, is an unavoidable risk factor for a stroke. Ten percent of all stroke survivors land in a nursing home for some length of time to receive care they may not be able to receive at home.
However, being over 55 doesn’t mean you are destined to have a stroke. There are several “controllable” risk factors, including:

  • Smoking or other tobacco use
  • Obesity
  • Excessive alcohol use

There are, additionally, some conditions common in seniors that increase the risk of stroke. They are:

  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • Atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries)
  • Circulation problems

Knowing the risk factors and controlling these issues through diet, exercise and medication when necessary can reduce the risk of stroke. As revolutionary as it is to manipulate objects in a virtual reality environment, you can look forward to the opportunity at your grandchildren’s house on a video game, instead.

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