Patients can practise 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 United Kingdom and Ireland. The University of Ulster's Jacqueline Crosbie, who is leading the new research study, stated: "Stroke is the most common cause of disability in adults and can lead to permanent changes in a person's life style. 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."
Jacqueline Crosbie said that out of the 80 percent of people who survive a stroke, between 30 and 66 percent 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. She stated that considerably less time was spent on encouraging arm and hand activities and it was also likely that the hospital environment might not provide sufficient stimulation for the patient to carry out arm and hand tasks independently.
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.
A pilot study involving a small number of patients has now been launched. The research project is being funded by the Northern Ireland Chest, Heart and Stroke Association.