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Senior man gesturing while using VR glasses on bed in hospital.
Senior man gesturing while using VR glasses on bed in hospital.

Testing a 3D Virtual Reality Device for Stroke Rehabilitation

For Upper Extremity Rehabilitation After Stroke

As virtual reality becomes more prevalent and popular, Northwestern Medicine physicians are studying it as a potential high-tech treatment for rehabilitation of the upper body after stroke.

Mahesh V. Ramachandran, MD, stroke rehabilitation specialist and chief medical officer at Northwestern Medicine Marianjoy Rehabilitation Hospital, Dhruvil J. Pandya, MD, health system clinician in the Ken & Ruth Davee Department of Neurology at Northwestern Medicine, and Nicholas Giovannetti, clinical program coordinator, occupational therapy, are conducting a clinical trial to assess the acceptability, tolerability and safety of a 3D virtual reality device used for upper extremity rehabilitation after stroke.

“Stroke is a leading cause of disability worldwide, and there are a significant number of patients whose quality of life is impacted by stroke,” says Dr. Pandya. “We want to provide a holistic approach, using technology as it evolves to create the most effective treatment methods and the best outcomes possible.”

Motivating Patients With an Interactive Tool

This virtual reality device uses computer graphics and 3D technology to encourage patients to get immersed in a virtual environment while they complete rehabilitation exercises to improve their upper extremity function after a stroke. Additionally, research suggests that virtual reality technology like this device can increase cortical activation, which leads to functional improvement for patients following a stroke.

Though existing 2D technology like the Armeo®Power robotic exoskeleton and video games are already used in upper extremity rehabilitation, this 3D device enables patients to operate in a virtual reality that recreates real life situations. It also allows patients to track their improvement, which is crucial to increasing motivation during a challenging time, both physically and emotionally. “It can be difficult to motivate patients to complete exercises on a daily basis, and this new technology adds more fun, visual indicators of progress and playfulness into the rehabilitation experience,” says Dr. Ramachandran, who has recovered from a stroke himself.

“It can be difficult to motivate patients to complete exercises on a daily basis, and this new technology adds more fun, visual indicators of progress and playfulness into the rehabilitation experience,” says Dr. Ramachandran, who has recovered from a stroke himself.

High Tech Addition to Stroke Rehabilitation

Designed for patients undergoing inpatient rehabilitation at Marianjoy Rehabilitation Hospital, the study asks patients to use the 3D device three times per week for 30 minutes each time. Patient feedback is being gathered through a questionnaire that will help determine enjoyment using the device and any experienced side effects, such as nausea or dizziness.

Future Use of 3D Virtual Reality in Medicine

If findings suggest that the 3D device is well-tolerated and accepted by patients as part of their rehab, the next step is a randomized trial that tests how this device improves clinical outcomes in an inpatient setting. In the future, the 3D device may also be tested in an outpatient setting so that patients can eventually use this new device at their leisure at home.
Additionally, there is a potential that this device may be used for other conditions, including mental health issues, and injuries beyond stoke. “There are injuries, like spinal cord and brain injuries, that could affect upper extremity function,” says. Dr. Ramachandran. “I can see future studies testing the use of this device for these patient populations.”

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Dhruvil Pandya, MD
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