Virtual reality (VR) technology allows users to immerse in a virtual environment, which has been changing the approaches to many industries, such as gaming, training, and education. Many industries are now exploring VR to improve user experience, enhance customer service, and develop better consumer products.
Other industries have benefited from the lightning-fast developments in this technology, as well. VR is now being used by health professionals and even the military for training activities, treatments, and therapy.
One of these groundbreaking medical applications of VR is post-stroke recovery and rehabilitation.
Virtual Reality and Post-Stroke Recovery
Millions of people have strokes each year, and a significant percentage of surviving patients experience reduced mobility, speech, and cognitive function. Researchers and medical professionals all over the world have been continuously working on rehabilitation techniques and procedures to improve the quality of life of those on the road to recovery.
Virtual reality is one such method that has been explored since the technology was developed. It is now considered a vital tool in physical therapy for certain diseases, including stroke survivors.
The concept of VR centers on simulated 3D environments that users can interact with and receive real-time feedback. Software programs and games are designed to help the brain and body re-learn simple movements and functions. This new approach helps with post-stroke rehabilitation as it simulates simple real-life activities that patients can use to practice their self-care skills in a safe environment.
Two types of VR are used in post-stroke recovery and rehabilitation: immersive and non-immersive VR.
Immersive Virtual Reality
With immersive VR, patients are placed in a simulated virtual environment using goggles, special gloves, head-mounted displays, and screen projections.
In one study, a fully-immersive VR treadmill was built to determine if it could help stroke survivors with walking therapy. Therapists and patients reported that the patients’ motivation to exercise and achieve tasks increased when using VR, while clinicians and therapists found the VR therapy game an engaging and motivating session.
These findings proved that a fully immersive VR was a potentially positive and valuable tool for gait and movement rehabilitation. Therapists and patients were encouraged to continue the sessions as the virtual environment gave patients the chance to explore various settings safely.
Today, immersive VR is used to help post-stroke patients improve their movements through software that targets specific areas. Therapists can choose which software suits a particular patient, and patients can receive feedback on their progress.
Non-Immersive Virtual Reality
Non-immersive VR (NIVR) uses two-dimensional technology delivered through a computer screen where the user controls what is happening with a mouse, sensor, or joystick. These systems are designed to help post-stroke patients to improve movement in their upper and lower limbs.
Stroke survivors can go through task-oriented training focused on movement and dexterity of their arms and legs. The brain then creates new neural connections that stimulate the recovery of motor skills.
Studies have shown that NIVR technology can supplement standard physiotherapy and neurorehabilitation in post-stroke patients. Patients that used the software six months post-stroke showed significant improvement, which shows that this technology can be more efficient than standard physiotherapy techniques.
How VR Tech Therapy Affects the Brain
When patients in therapy perform specific tasks, different areas of the brain are activated. Recent research has shown that motor learning through physical therapy creates changes that influence the cortical maps of the brain.
Even the damaged areas in stroke patients show that the brain’s cerebral cortex reorganizes and creates new connections through repeated physical tasks and enriched environments.
In stroke-affected patients, repeated movements of affected limbs lead to significant improvement depending on the cortical reorganization of the undamaged cortical tissues. Early stroke rehabilitation that is stimulating, complex, and intense can improve recovery and rehabilitation outcomes.
Neuroplasticity and Virtual Reality
Brain neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to adapt its structure and function as part of a person’s response to the environment and experience. It is essentially the brain’s ability to restructure its connections when they are broken for any reason.
The effect of VR technology on the brain includes changes in neuroplasticity for post-stroke patients. The mechanisms of VR-based therapies showed positive correlations between the changes in neural plasticity and functional therapy.
VR provides patients with a more interesting and engaging environment to practice goal-oriented tasks in a safe environment. Setting specific goals at the beginning of each session can lead to a behavioral change that sparks long-term recovery. Neuroscientists have also recognized that motivational factors such as reward learning can contribute to therapies’ efficacy.
The ability of the brain to reorganize itself in response to a person’s experience can be manipulated in damaged and healthy brain tissue alike. Immersing stroke patients in VR-based therapies can increase the chances of the brain fixing itself, largely because neuroplasticity is experience-dependent.
Using VR for post-stroke recovery can also lead to the opportunity to go through therapy without close supervision, which means patients can do it at home. Their goal-oriented tasks would compel patients to complete their therapy programs and increase their intensity even without the encouragement of a physician or therapist in the room.
Furthermore, VR therapies structured like commercial video games have led to more physical improvements in patients, especially in balance, posture, limb control, and functionality.
What VR Therapies Mean for Stroke Patients
Exploring immersive and non-immersive VR therapies is valuable for treating various conditions that affect mobility, especially in stroke patients. Using such technologies has been shown to significantly improve the recovery trajectory of such patients, even more so when compared to traditional methods.
The gamification of movement therapies for post-stroke patients leads to motivation and increases the chance of the brain to heal itself. A post-stroke patient’s brain can create new connections that can lead to recovery and functionality with the use of VR technologies that are goal-focused and task-specific.
Using virtual reality for stroke rehabilitation is no longer a far-off possibility; clinicians should make it an essential part of functional therapy so patients can benefit from all their proven advantages.