Games are everywhere — on our phones, our wrists, at home and at work. One place where gamification is making inroads is in the treatment of patients after a stroke, especially when it comes to virtual reality in healthcare.

More than 700,000 Americans a year suffer a stroke, and nearly 70% survive and require rehabilitation, according to theNational Institutes of Health.

Worldwide, the impact of strokes is massive. The World Health Organization estimates 15 million people a year suffer a stroke. Five million of those people die, and 5 million are permanently disabled.

Two recent research projects have shown the potential benefits of virtual reality in healthcare settings, including to aid physical therapists helping patients regain the use of stroke-impaired limbs and teaching patients to reduce the effects of their deficits.

By wearing a virtual reality headset, people often are transported into an artificial environment in which they can experience the sights and sounds of that environment. A person’s actions and body movements can help determine events that happen within this environment.

Virtual reality in healthcare innovation achievement

virtual reality in healthcare“Most of the demonstrated use for virtual reality are gaming or entertainment,” researcher Sook-Lei Liew said on University of Southern California’s website. “The future has got to include virtual reality for healthcare.”

Liew and her colleagues were recognized for innovative use of virtual reality in healthcare at the 2017 South by Southwest festival for their REINVENT device, also known as Rehabilitation Environment using the Integration of Neuromuscular-based Virtual Enhancements for Neural Training.

“The area where virtual reality is most useful is where they allow us to do things we can’t otherwise do,” said Liew, who sees the project as a team effort among scientists. “It’s a blend of tech, industry, science and the clinic. It really takes it to a whole new level.”

Along with virtual reality, Liew’s system uses brain and muscle sensors that show movements of the hands and arms in the virtual world when a patient has used the correct brain and muscle signals. This occurs in virtual reality even when the patients cannot move arms or hands on their own.

This allows patients to train these damaged circuits to properly work again, according to Liew.

Virtual reality offers new recovery approach

Danish researcher Iris Brunner from Aarhus University believes virtual reality in healthcare could be a suitable replacement for traditional rehabilitation methods for patients after a stroke.

She studied 120 people who suffered a stroke within three months before her research began and suffered reduced arm and hand mobility. All participants took part in four or five treatments a week for four weeks.

Half of the group took part in virtual reality training, while the other half received traditional rehabilitation.

“In both groups, there were significant improvements in the patients’ motor skills, but there was no difference between the results of the two groups,” Brunner said on the university’s website.

While patients had success with the virtual reality treatments, which included video game-like simulations, such as flying a plane or driving a car with hand movements, Brunner said it should not replace all rehabilitation treatments.

“There is … something you miss out on, which is the tactile sense of surface structure as well as the feel of the weight you are lifting, throwing or grabbing,” said Brunner, whose 2017 study was published in the journal Neurology. “We should see the virtual training as a supplement, a new tool in the toolbox, which is particularly suitable for training speed and precision.”

Learn more about stroke treatment with our Stroke Treatment and Prevention Bundle.