Compared to conventional rehabilitation, exercise video games appear to be more effective in helping people with MS improve their balance, according to a recent analysis of past video game therapy studies. Meanwhile, virtual reality (VR) technology has yet to prove it’s as effective, though it looks promising, researchers concluded.
Balance issues are common among people living with MS, due to the condition’s effect on the central nervous system. It can manifest as “jelly legs,” leading to walking difficulties and falls. Conventional physical therapy is a common treatment for balance, and it often entails learning different types of exercises from a physical therapist. However, alternatives to conventional PT have emerged in recent years, including tech-based exergame and VR products.
According to the authors of this new study, “Exergaming consists of whole-body physical exercises comparable to a moderate intensity training, performed through active video games.” The authors offered Nintendo Wii and Microsoft Kinect as examples of exergame hardware.
VR, meanwhile, immerses users in a simulated 3D environment where they can use their bodies to explore and interact with a virtual world. According to Physiopedia, “VR technology provides sensory stimulation and feedback, which alters brain activity and enhances neuroplasticity, as well as motor learning.”
Some exergames — but not all — do incorporate VR technology. The Oculus is one popular VR system that offers some games geared toward fitness.
Over the past several years, researchers have studied the use of exergaming and VR as potential therapies for neurological diseases, including MS, Parkinson’s, and cerebral palsy. These approaches encourage whole-body movement and cognitive tasks without the boredom associated with conventional therapies. In addition, balance training through video games could also have psychological effects, as it increases a person’s motivation and the likelihood of completing the treatment regimen.
For the recent study, published in Frontiers in Neurology, researchers examined seven past clinical trials, in which 97 people with MS used VR or exergaming as balance training and 112 used conventional rehabilitation.
Ultimately, the authors concluded that exergames were significantly effective in improving balance outcomes — with the added bonus of positively affecting neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to change to adapt), sensorimotor training, and motivation.
As for VR, researchers found “all these studies were unable to draw strong conclusion about the real impact of VR on balance improvement in patients with MS, even though the effects of this approach are promising, considering the evidence obtained in other chronic neurological disorders.”
Exergaming and VR technology may hold other benefits over conventional training. Home-based exergaming and VR systems enable people with MS to work on rehabilitation at home, which is more convenient and also makes it easier to practice social distancing to avoid COVID-19 infection. Additionally, games and consoles that support VR and exergames are considered relatively inexpensive, and they may encourage social bonding with other family members during multiplayer games.