Virtual Reality (VR) is a relatively new stroke rehabilitation approach, aiming to address motor deficits and shorten the recovery process. VR may have some advantages over traditional therapy approaches as it can give people an opportunity to practice activities of daily living (ADL) anywhere. A number of research studies focusing on the effectiveness of VR in stroke rehabilitation are still underway.
Through VR, the stroke victim experiences stimulation of neurons in the brain. VR uses computer-based programs to simulate real life objects and events thus help stroke survivors who face difficulty in moving, thinking and sensing. By performing virtual activities that do not actually put strain on the stroke survivor’s body or cause any pain, the patient’s cognitive functioning is developed and perception is improved. The process, in turn, improves brain functioning.
Virtual Reality works on the visualization principle. Professional athletes use Visualization, particularly before important competitions. Athletes visualize themselves in full speed and perfect form to follow through. Similarly, when a stroke patient through VR visualizes performing difficult tasks, it mentally trains him to perform that task. This trick boosts motivation by making it easier for the stroke survivor to do the things he doesn’t want to do otherwise. For instance, visualizing walking without crutches would reduce the stroke survivor’s fear of giving up the walking support.
Studies show that VR can improve functional outcome after stroke. Training in the virtual reality environment enhances the stroke survivor’s performance during attention-demanding and challenging situations.
To counter common walking and balance difficulties after stroke, VR helps an individual re-learn obstacle negotiation, encountering an object and moving over or around it, which requires greater attention, planning and judgement. VR strengthen the thinking processes that could help the stroke survivor avoid falls. Virtual Reality, being a multimedia experience, lets the survivor interact with a different environment, helping him prevent falls.
The effects of VR on the upper limb, lower limb and global motor function after stroke have been the subject of many research studies. Strong evidence supports the positive effects of VR on upper limb motor recovery. However, further studies are underway to establish what type of VR system is the most appropriate, which frequencies and intensities of treatment are the most suitable and whether VR benefits are maintained in the long term or not.