VR on par with traditional rehab in restoring motor function in stroke patients

Using virtual reality training to restore motor function after a stroke is just as effective as traditional physical therapy, reports a new study published in the medical journal Neurology.

Danish first author Iris Brunner, PhD, and colleagues evaluated a pool of 120 stroke patients, all of whom had experienced a stroke within 12 weeks of the study’s baseline and were having difficulty restoring full function in their upper extremities. The group was split in half, with one cohort randomized to virtual reality rehabilitation training and the other randomized to conventional therapy. All results were stratified based on the severity of hand paresis, muscle weakness and wrist and arm strength.

Study patients participated in a minimum of 16 hour-long therapy sessions over the course of four weeks, Brunner and co-authors wrote. Process was measured through the primary outcome measure, the Action Research Arm Test, and secondary outcome measures like the Box and Blocks Test and Functional Independence Measure.

Those randomized to virtual reality training used a screen and gloves with sensors to navigate a variety of games that incorporated arm, hand and finger movements, according to the research. The virtual reality system isn’t immersive, Brunner said in a release from the American Academy of Neurology (AAN)—goggles aren’t a part of the system yet.

“We can only speculate whether using virtual reality goggles or other techniques to create a more immersive experience would increase the effect of the training,” she said.

High-tech goggles or not, virtual reality patients seemed to see the same benefits as those who underwent traditional physical and occupational therapy.

“Both groups had substantial improvement in their functioning, but there was no difference between the two groups in the results,” Brunner said. “These results suggest that either type of training could be used, depending on what the patient prefers.”

Patients in virtual reality therapy improved 12 points from the study’s baseline to the postintervention assessment, the authors wrote, and improved 17 points from baseline to a three-month follow-up. Similarly, participants randomized to conventional therapy improved 13 and 17 points, respectively.

Though additional upper extremity virtual reality training didn’t top traditional methods as a rehab alternative, Brunner and colleagues wrote the new technique could be an alternative or supplement to traditional rehabilitation.

“Virtual reality training may be a motivating alternative for people to use as a supplement to their standard therapy after a stroke,” Brunner said in the AAN release. “Future studies could also look at whether people could use virtual reality therapy remotely from their homes, which could lessen the burden and cost of traveling to a medical center for standard therapy.”