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Gaming Strength

By Jen Saltsman

Imagine not being able to use one of your arms. Imagine how hard it would be to take out the trash, tie your shoelaces or eat a steak. Imagine how difficult it would be to wrap a holiday gift or unload the groceries.

Yet that’s a reality for thousands of stroke survivors. According to the National Stroke Association, stroke is the leading cause of adult disability in the United States, with survivors suffering from a range of injuries from impaired eyesight to slurred speech to decreased motor coordination.

Flaccidity, or weakness on one side of the body, is the most common issue, though.

So what does one do? Turn on the Xbox, of course.

From 2006-2007, occupational therapy students Amy Whetstone and Sarah Schuck researched the effects of playing video games on post-stroke survivors at the Drake Center, a long-term rehabilitation facility in Cincinnati.

The patients met with Whetstone and Schuck three times a week for three weeks where they played video games as part of their rehabilitation.

The video game, developed by Performance Health Technologies, is a computer program similar to the “Pong” game of earlier days. Instead of twisting knobs or pushing buttons on a console, though, a sensor is attached to the patient’s affected limb. When the limb is moved, the sensor sends a wireless signal to the computer, which tracks the patient’s accuracy rate and progress.

One of the study participants was a woman who, before her stroke, enjoyed traveling overseas and was able to drive herself to and from work. After her stroke, she was unable to perform house chores or drive herself anywhere.

She continued her physical therapy after the three-week study, and she eventually relearned how to drive and later was able to resume travelling.

Typical stroke treatments include physical therapy and electrical stimulation to the brain. The concept of using a video game to increase motor activity, however, is relatively new to the field of occupational therapy.

But, says Valerie Hill, a clinical faculty member in the Department of Occupational Therapy who oversaw the study, the treatment seems to be effective. It aids in the patient’s physical rehabilitation, plus it’s fun.

“Having as many tools as possible at our disposal gives our clients more opportunities to regain that strength,” says Hill. “Treatment is about learning mobility applications in a positive and encouraging way.”

While traditional occupational therapy techniques are effective, the unique feature about the video game is its real-time, encouraging assessment of the patient’s progress, says Hill.

“If something is able to give positive feedback, it’s more fun and encouraging for the patients. Rather than repeating exercises and motions, the video game acts like an incentive.”

By the end of the study, Schuck and Whetstone concluded that both participants experienced an increase in their quality of life, as well as a higher inclination to use their affected limb.

The participants also noted that the game proved more motivational than traditional rehabilitation techniques.

“These people struggle with things every day that you and I don’t even think twice about,” says Whetstone, referring to the study participants. “Strokes are debilitating both mentally and physically, but treatment is changing and improving quite a bit.”

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