Is Your Wii the New Stroke Rehab?

How video games can boost stroke rehab results
video game controller

By: Frederick Frost, MD

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It’s a lot easier to stick with exercises that are fun to do than with those that feel like a chore. That’s especially true for victims of stroke going through rehabilitation.

That’s why the use of video games to aid stroke rehabilitation has become a major focus of research in my field.

There’s growing evidence that virtual reality gaming systems like the Wii™ can help stroke victims regain some arm function and even improve balance and visual impairments.

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Rewiring the brain

Why does gaming seem to help stroke patients recover? It has to do with the brain’s ability to ramp up its function in one area to compensate for injury to another area, a term we call neuroplasticity. We know that a consistent exercise routine after a stroke can help to rewire those brain functions and give a patient better outcomes than without any exercise.

The trouble is that many of my patients consider their post-stroke exercises to be tedious and difficult. They usually return to the hospital for regular sessions with an occupational therapist, but too often, they don’t keep up with their daily exercises at home.

How gaming changes the game

Virtual reality games like the Wii have been shown to deliver results comparable to those from traditional exercises for people who have suffered a stroke, but they’re a lot more fun to do. They are also task-oriented — trying to achieve a 300 in Wii Bowling can be more motivating than moving plastic rings from one peg to another.

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For example, a study conducted by St. Michael’s Hospital at the University of Toronto found an average 20 percent improvement in motor function and completion of routine tasks for patients on a regular schedule of virtual reality video games during stroke rehabilitation.

Fun and motivating while still being therapeutic and repetitive — virtual reality-style video games help keep my patients on track with their exercise routines during rehabilitation.

But this doesn’t mean that you should abandon traditional therapy and stay home to play Wii Bowling with the grandkids instead. Video game therapy is intended to be an add-on to your work with a certified occupational therapist, and it’s a tool that has wide support among therapists and physicians who work with victims of stroke.

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