There is some groundbreaking news for those with spinal cord injuries that are now using electric wheelchairs (motorized wheelchairs). A recent study from New Zealand has demonstrated there are many potential benefits in using (VR) virtual reality to help aid paralyzed individuals improve mobility. Published in Disability and Rehabilitation, the results are part of a growing body of evidence for using VR in rehabilitation.
Researchers there have created a full Virtual Reality environment for potentially training spinal cord injury patients that have been relegated to motorized wheelchair use. For the study, feedback was gathered from both providers and patients. The investigators wanted to see how feasible useful VR is in assisting patients with such training and what features would be most helpful.
So what was done that they came to these conclusions? First, they recruited spinal cord injury patients who were experienced in power wheelchair use as well as healthcare professionals with spinal cord injury rehabilitation experience (physical therapists, occupational therapists, and a nurse), placed them in the Virtual Reality environment for a 20-30 minutes, and then conducted a participant feedback analysis. The VR setup consisted of an Oculus Rift headset coupled with a LiNX joystick to emulate the electric wheelchair controls. This was all set up in a custom-built simulation environment named the TransitioNZ SCI rehabilitation unit in Christchurch, New Zealand.
The results found four key themes in participant responses: realism, wheelchair training system use, overcoming resistance to technology, and working outside of the rehabilitation environment. The participants agreed that the realism of the Virtual Reality system was a strong factor for further continued use and engagement. They noted the environment had multiple potential applications in electric mobility training for spinal cord injuries. The concerns regarding any potential resistance to its implementation were addressed, mostly with recommendations for those health professionals to try the system first before using it with patients.
Additionally, concerns about how difficult the system would be to implement on a technological level were mentioned. Finally, users noted that an advantage of the Virtual Reality system was the ability to virtually challenge users in scenarios not typically found in rehabilitation hospitals, providing additional training and an escape from the “rehabilitation bubble.” The authors plan to continue development with the VR wheelchair training software. This is a fairly small study with low-quality evidence, yet it does provide interesting feedback on both the potential of Virtual Reality in rehabilitation and challenges to be overcome.
Using VR to help aid those suffering with spinal cord injury is not a new concept, but a number of new studies have been published on the topic. Other studies have described the use of an immersive virtual environment coupled with a CyberTouch data glove, to teach activities of daily living, as well as another study showing that the Oculus Rift headset was used to improve neuropathic pain and measure embodiment. In another recent study in 2017 Frontiers in Neurology, noted that a home-based non-immersive VR gaming system improved strength, balance, and functional mobility in incomplete spinal cord injuries. Even, the Journal of Spinal Cord Medicine published a 2017 study using semi-immersive VR for balance training in incomplete spinal cord injury with positive results. This miniature explosion in recent publications on a relatively niche topic demonstrates the increasing availability and interest in VR medical technology, including in rehabilitation.
What an incredible breakthrough for those who truly can use all the technological advancements there are out there in assisting in any way to help ease the burden of spinal cord injury.