Study examines use of gaming system for stroke rehab

June 14, 2013

CALGARY — Researchers in Calgary are studying the use of a popular gaming system in stroke rehabilitation as part of a nationwide study that could lead to improved outcomes for patients.

The multi-centre study examines the effectiveness of using Nintendo Wii – a virtual reality gaming system that detects a wide range of body movements – in rehabilitating stroke patients who have limited mobility in their upper extremities. The study will involve 160 stroke patients across Canada, including 10 each at Foothills Medical Centre and Dr. Vernon Fanning Centre.

“The hypothesis is that the Wii will not only be more enjoyable but lead to better range of motion and more successful rehabilitation overall,” says Dr. Sean Dukelow, Alberta Health Services (AHS) stroke specialist and a member of the University of Calgary’s Hotchkiss Brain Institute.

Dr. Dukelow is leading the Calgary portion of the study.

“Early, effective rehabilitation after a stroke is essential to ensuring quality of life, preventing disability and improving the likelihood of recovery,” he says.

The study, led by Dr. Gustavo Saposnik of Toronto’s St. Michael’s Hospital and funded by the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada, looks at cognitive and motor function of patients who use Wii in the first three months after their stroke, compared with patients who used traditional recreational activities, such as dominoes, card games and Jenga building blocks. Patients are also tested for anxiety levels and depression.

Each patient participates in 10 hours of either Wii or traditional therapy, over two weeks, working closely with a recreational therapist and an occupational therapist. Participants using Wii can choose from a variety of games, including tennis, bowling, shuffleboard or darts.

“With Wii, compared to other games, the motions are larger and patients often have to reset their grip to press the button,” Dr. Dukelow says. “It translates into being more engaged during their therapy.”

Stroke is a leading cause of death and disability. About 5,500 Albertans suffer strokes annually – that’s 15 every day.

“Research is critical to ensuring that stroke survivors can look forward to long and fulfilled lives,” says Kate Chidester, the Heart and Stroke Foundation’s vice-president of health and research in Alberta. “Dr. Dukelow and his colleagues are using leading-edge technology to advance stroke rehabilitation and recovery – this work is exciting, patient-centred and very promising.”

This study is based on preliminary results from a pilot trial, which demonstrated that virtual reality exercises have the potential to improve outcomes for stroke survivors and may be a cost-effective method of improving rehabilitation.

Participants in the study must have a minimum range of motion and be able to move their hand from their knee to their ear, and grasp and release objects.

Study participant Art Cunningham had a stroke in April that made it difficult to move his left leg and arm. He believes doing repetitive actions, such as bowling using the Wii gaming system, has helped his recovery.

“I really enjoy it. It’s interactive and makes you focus on your motor skills,” says the 60-year-old Calgary man. “Plus, it’s a therapy that I can do with my grandkids.”

The Heart and Stroke Foundation, a volunteer-based health charity, leads in eliminating heart disease and stroke, reducing their impact through initiatives to prevent disease, save lives and promote recovery.

Alberta Health Services is the provincial health authority responsible for planning and delivering health supports and services for more than 3.9 million adults and children living in Alberta. Its mission is to provide a patient-focused, quality health system that is accessible and sustainable for all Albertans.

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