With one person dying every 4 minutes, stroke is the 5th leading cause of death in the US.
Since stroke is a medical emergency, early treatment is key to survivability.
Strokes occur due to interruption in the blood supply to the brain, causing brain tissue to die. The blood supply is either blocked due to formation of blood clots or fatty acid deposits (ischemic stroke) or a blood vessel within the brain ruptures leaking blood into the space between the brain and the skull (hemorrhagic stroke).
For a condition like this, the most common symptoms are quite predictable:
- Weakness or numbness of the face, arm, or leg on one side of the body
- Loss of vision or dimming in one or both eyes
- Loss of speech, difficulty in talking, or understanding what others are saying
- Sudden, severe headache without any trigger
- Loss of balance and stability
Depending on how quickly it is diagnosed and treated, the patient can experience temporary or permanent disabilities as an aftermath of stroke.
55 to 75% of stroke patients experience mobility problems that impair their quality of life. To make their suffering a little easier, the victims often tend to underuse their affected limbs, weakening them even further. The common mindset is to compensate for losing the muscle strength in one limb by using the working limb more frequently. This eventually leads to the development of a behavioural pattern in which the weak limb is completely ignored.
Traditional therapy is, therefore, designed to constrain the working limb and force the patient to use their impaired limb to accomplish tasks.
‘Tricking’ The Mind
VR is becoming a technology that is proving useful in numerous areas to improve existing methods.
One way in which it is influencing the area of stroke therapy is by creating a virtuous circle of recovery, in which positive feedback, spontaneous arm use and motor performance can reinforce each other.
The program first teaches patients to control their body and thought process before actually having them practice those skills in the virtual world so they feel confident and can use them in the real world. Engaging patients in this ongoing cycle of spontaneous arm use, training and learning could produce a remarkable impact on their recovery process. Rehabilitation exercises can help the brain create new connections between nerve cells in comparison to the standard therapies which induce only a modest improvement in mobility.
The Game of Connecting Mirrors…
VR games are believed to activate ‘mirror neurons,’ or neurons that fire when a person sees a certain movement being performed.2 Engaging the mirror neuron system facilitates in the formation of new brain connections and aids in recovery.
“People who are re-learning movements often get frustrated or embarrassed. Practicing in the virtual world allows them to do it in the comfort of their own home.”
Virtual reality is finding greater uses in therapy as it provides a digital sphere to enable the testing of impossible. Of course, the traditional physical therapy for stroke won’t go away, but there’s already a significant number of people who could benefit from VR therapy too, in order to fight cognitive confusion, speech problems, and paralysis.
Limiting Yet Encouraging
While there is evidence to support the use of virtual reality intervention as part of upper limb training programs, more research is needed to resolve whether it is advantageous in improving lower limb function, gait and cognitive function.
Although, the studies are still very nascent and the results need to be tested and retested on larger groups of patients to ensure replicability, they are promising and indicative of a yet another use for virtual worlds in improving how we navigate the physical.
After all, it’s all in the mind.