Video Games and Physical Therapy: Just Cool or Does It Really Work?

Can video games be used to improve physical therapy patient outcomes? As naturally curious people, we wanted to learn more about the practical applications (current and future) for video games for physical therapy.

Students from Rice University

In a very recent article in Engadget, several students from Rice University created a video game especially for pediatric physical therapy. The game, called Equilibrium, was commissioned by the Shriner’s Hospital to get kids excited about improving their walking gait and balance. Equilibrium uses the Wii Balance Board and custom designed balance bars. The students created a monster shooting game that increases in difficulty as patients progress in their therapy. The difference between this game and regular exercises is…more fun! Watch an interview with the Rice University student researchers here.

Although this custom program is too expensive and not yet available for the public, it does show the future potential for therapy-focused games. Using video games in conjunction with physical therapy seems particularly applicable for pediatric patients. Judith Deutsch, PT, PhD used video games to improve results with a 13 year-old patient with spastic diplegic cerebral palsy. The patient showed measured improvements in  visual-perceptual processing, postural control and functional mobility. Here are some pictures showing young patients playing Wii games. The competitive aspect of the game is more engaging to young kids and makes exercise more like free time and less like work.

The Nintendo Wii and Wii Fit were also used in a recently released study by Johns Hopkins researchers. Twenty-two patients admitted to the intensive care unit at Johns Hopkins used the video game system as part of 42 physical therapy sessions. The activities done with the Wii included bowling and boxing. Although more study is needed, some of the initial results are shared below:

“As always, patient safety was a top priority, given that healthy people playing video games may be injured during routine gaming, but when properly selected and supervised by experienced ICU physical therapists, patients enjoyed the challenge of the video games and welcomed the change from their physical therapy routines.” – Dale M. Needham, M.D. ,Ph.D., associate professor and medical director of the Critical Care Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation Program at Johns Hopkins.

Microsoft’s Xbox Kinect has also been used in a physical therapy setting. The gaming console uses motion sensor technology to monitor patient movements. This technology could some day be used as a simple way to measure patient range of motion. The video below shows the Kinect being used for exactly this purpose (although only for research).

Since the use of video games with physical therapy is relatively new, we wanted to find more examples of real world use. Through some Google searches, we stumbled across Ridgefield Physical Therapy. In a blog post on the clinic’s website, owner Chuck Giordano says,
“We know certain patients can benefit from the added functionality which the Wii can bring to their exercise programs, and we carefully apply this new method which can lead to improved outcomes.” Comprehensive Orthopedic Physical Therapy also wrote a detailed list of benefits of the Wii system for physical therapy patients.

We’d love to know if you are using or have used video games for your patients. What worked and what did not work?

Lindsay is a blogger for WebPT, Inc. a Phoenix-based software company that has tripled in size over the last 12 months.  WebPT develops the leading Web-based EMR for Physical Therapists. It is the easiest, most affordable, and most complete solution for physical therapy clinics on the market today. WebPT ensures compliance, security, and efficiency while providing a truly mobile solution that meets the needs of today’s PT. For more info, Web-based EMR for Physical Therapists.