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Virtual Reality Helps Stroke Patients Regain Movement

Virtual Reality Helps Stroke Patients Regain Movement

People who have suffered a stroke can experience a range of complications after, such as depression and anxiety. But what of the physical repercussions? Having a stroke can result in weakness or paralysis on one side of the body, called hemiparesis.

Paralysis of any kind can take a lot of work to overcome – if it’s even possible to – and it’s understandable that someone with it would be more inclined to favour their non-paralysed limbs.

But, as you can imagine, not using your muscles for a prolonged period of time can damage them more, with further loss of function. And while it might have been possible for the weakened limbs to regain some use, more work is needed to repair it the longer it hasn’t been used.

But researchers in Spain, at the Pompeu Fabra University, think they have found a way of helping stroke patients with hemiparesis recover some movement back in their under-used arms.

The team’s study involved 20 such patients and was published in the Journal of Neuroengineering and Rehabilitation. The researchers were sometimes able to convince the study participants that their affected limb was more accurate than it actually was, on a screen.

During the study, the patients were asked to reach for targets that appeared on the screen, using virtual arms in a virtual environment, powered by their own limbs. Without informing the participants they were doing so, the researchers gradually improved the movements of some of the patients’ virtual limbs. This made them appear faster and more accurate and easy to use.

Patients used their arms to control virtual arms reaching for virtual objects

The performances were recorded, for the trials with normal settings as well as with the adjustments. This information included which arm they favoured when reaching in the tests, too.

The team found that after the adjustments – making the limbs seem more effective – the patients’ actual performance was stronger and they were more likely to use their hemiparetic limbs than before the changes were made. For example, when they went to reach for something before any changes had been made, there was only a 35% chance of them using their weaker limb.

Study lead Dr Belen Rubio said that 10 minutes was all it took to significant change “use of the affected limb”. And the changes really were remarkable, with the hemiparetic arm being chosen 50% of the time – just like with a healthy arm.

Dr Rubio explained that continuing to train and relearn spontaneous arm use, could have an amazing impact on their overall recovery process.

She added that new rehabilitation strategies are needed to encourage patients with hemiparesis to use their affected limbs in daily activities, to make them stronger.

“Often we neglect the remarkable contribution of the patient’s emotional and physiological states of recovery,” she said, “and this includes their confidence.”

So, what we have to remember is the amount of damage being caused through the limbs not being used. The Stroke Association agrees, saying that physical and mental rehabilitation, like that demonstrated in the study, can help rewire the patients’ brains and aid their recovery.

Of course, larger trials are still needed, but with this study, we are one step closer to helping stroke sufferers recover and get back to their former glory.

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