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A Stroke Can Steal Away A Person’s Ability To Move Freely. Virtual Reality Might Help Bring It Back.

How do you get to a physical therapy appointment when your limbs are paralyzed? Bring the physical therapy to you.

The cruelest thing about a stroke is that its effects can linger well after you leave the hospital.

It can affect a person’s memory or ability to speak and even rob them of the use of their hands and arms. Suddenly, formerly simple tasks like using a phone, doing the dishes, or turning the pages of a book can become arduous.

Because of this, one of the first places a stroke patient often goes after the hospital is to rehabilitation at a clinic or medical center. However, in the future, doctors might have another option at their disposal to help people regain their dexterity. A new study suggests that virtual reality (VR) might be as effective as regular therapy when it comes to restoring hand and arm movement after a stroke.

A user shows off one of the program's games. Photo via Dr. Iris Brunner, used with permission.

The study comes from Dr. Iris Brunner of Aarhus University in Denmark. Brunner and her team divided 120 stroke patients into two groups. The first got conventional therapy in a medical clinic while the second got to play with a specially designed VR program that use screens and gloves to challenge the player to various dexterity games. After four weeks, Brunner compared the two groups’ progress and found them to be nearly identical.

This suggests that in the future, VR might be able to supplement or even serve as an alternative to conventional therapy, making treatment accessible to people who struggle with the cost, distance, or burden of having to travel to a medical center. Instead of having to call, pay for, and spend an hour in a taxi, people could train from the comfort of their living rooms.

Though sophisticated VR is still a relatively new technology, the medical field has been quick to experiment with it. Doctors have used VR to give trainee doctors a close-up view of complicated surgeries, teach them empathy, and even cheer up patients stuck in a hospital.

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