Virtual reality helps people with stroke regain use of their upper limbs

Researchers from the University of Ulster and the Royal Hospitals have developed revolutionary techniques to help people with stroke regain use of their upper limbs, with the help of virtual reality.

The School of Rehabilitation Sciences, in conjunction with the School of Computing and Information Engineering and staff from the Stroke Unit at the Royal Hospitals, has launched a pilot study employing a low cost, virtual reality system, which allows people with stroke to be immersed in a virtual world.

Patients can practice upper limb movements in a virtual world, which can provide a more stimulating environment to relieve the boredom of repetitive tasks. The study is unique in the UK and Ireland.

The Northern Ireland Chest, Heart and Stroke Association have funded the research project.

“Stroke is the most common cause of disability in adults and can lead to permanent changes in a person’s life style,” explains Jacqueline Crosbie, from the University of Ulster, who is leading the new research study.

“It is estimated that out of the 80% of people who survive a stroke, between 30-66% will not regain use of their affected arm. This may be explained by the fact that current rehabilitation therapy largely concentrates on getting the patient mobile so that they can return home as soon as possible. Considerably less time is spent on encouraging arm and hand activities. It is also likely that the hospital environment may not provide sufficient stimulation for the patient to carry out arm and hand tasks independently.

“This virtual reality system focuses specifically on helping stroke patients regain more use of arm and hand movement, hopefully making everyday tasks such as eating, drinking and driving possible.”

The new technology will involve the patient wearing a head-mounted display which provides a sense of immersion into a virtual world. The world could be a representation of an environment with which the patient is familiar, such as a kitchen, living room or supermarket, enabling the practice of movements needed to carry out daily chores such as making a cup of tea.

The patient will also be wearing a flexible glove connected to position and orientation sensors and a number of additional sensors will be attached to the patient’s shoulder. These will enable the patient’s hand and arm movements to be tracked in the virtual environment-providing visual feedback to the patient. Audio feedback in the form of a ‘virtual physiotherapist’ is also possible, offering encouragement and motivation during the tasks.

“The are several important benefits of this system. Although initially the equipment will be tested out under the supervision of UU researchers, once trained, it may be possible for some patients to practice upper limb movements independently. This means that patients can practice more often and focus on specific movements or tasks in their own time, increasing the chances of a return to full use of the arms and hands,” said Ms Crosbie.

“Different virtual worlds provide rich environments to relieve the boredom of practising what can often be repetitive and frustrating tasks. The system can also be configured to exaggerate small movements, increasing the feeling of achievement and improving patient motivation.

“We are beginning a pilot study at the University that will involve a small number of patients in the first instance. It is an exciting project and one that is unique in the UK and Ireland. We are hopeful that this new form of rehabilitation therapy will considerably improve the quality of life for people with stroke.”

The research team from the University of Ulster includes Mrs Jacqui Crosbie, Dr Suzanne Mc Donough and Dr S Lennon-Frazer from the School of Rehabilitation Sciences, Dr Michael McNeill and Mr Ludek Pokluda from the School of Computing and Information Engineering and Dr Ivan Wiggam, Consultant Stroke Physician.

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