Healthcare Insider Blog

Physical therapists use virtual reality to enhance patient rehabilitation

  • Healthcare Alvernia

In a previous Healthcare Insider blog, we discussed the use of video games as part of physical therapy practice to motivate patients and combat noncompliance — which can be as high as 70 percent when it comes to patients doing their home exercises.

Virtual Reality (VR), which is used in popular video games is making strides in the world of physical therapy.

An article published in the December 2016 issue of the American Physical Therapy Journal titled, Effect of Virtual Reality Training on Balance and Gait Ability in Patients with Stroke: Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis, gives a comprehensive review of findings from 13 different studies that measure gait and stability improvements in stroke patients when using Virtual Reality (VR).

Many video game platforms were evaluated in these studies, including treatments that involved having patients walk on a treadmill while wearing a Head Mounted Device (HMD) with custom visualizations.

The custom HMD Virtual Reality visualizations used in physical therapy sessions used real-world videos and simulated the patient walking on a track, a trail, or a sidewalk, presenting virtual obstacles they would have to step over, as well as different terrain for them to maneuver like level ground and slopes. The visualizations even presented different weather conditions, times of day, and settings.

The article shows significant gait and balance improvements when using these VR training mechanisms, and even further improvements when they are used in combination with conventional physical therapy practices.

According to the article, 12 of 13 studies displayed significant improvements when using VR compared to control groups. Eight out of 11 showed significant improvement in gait and seven out of 10 found improvements in balance when using VR compared to the control group.

Study authors explain several reasons why this rehabilitation method is beneficial to stroke patients:

  1. “Virtual reality creates patient specific motor training with a high level of repetitive and variable training.”
  2. “Besides repetitive training, variability in practice is important for motor learning because it will lead to improvement in the ability to adapt to novel situations.”
  3. “Visual feedback, specifically, has been shown to play a role in improving balance in patients with stroke. All studies in this review included visual, auditory, or sensory augmented feedback… Therefore, this aspect of VR may play a crucial role in the positive effect of VR on improving balance and gait ability.”
  4. “… VR is thought to improve motivation and enjoyment, to decrease the perception of exertion, and to increase the activity adherence in training.”

DPT students at Alvernia will take Neuromuscular Physical Therapy Practice I, II, and III where they will discuss the physiology of the neuromuscular system and learn to address and evaluate different clinical signs and symptoms, prognosis and potential for recovery of selected neuromuscular conditions.

Effective November 12, 2014, Alvernia University has been granted Candidate for Accreditation status by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (1111 North Fairfax Street, Alexandria, VA, 22314; phone: 703-706-3245; email: Candidacy is not an accreditation status nor does it assure eventual accreditation. Candidate for Accreditation is a pre-accreditation status of affiliation with the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education that indicates the program is progressing toward accreditation.

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