A compromised sense of balance and resulting falls are key concerns for patients with multiple sclerosis (MS). Past balance-control strategies have relied on tasks coordinating motor skills with sensory input, Feldenkrais moves and stretching exercises.
However, a six-week pilot study published in the Journal of NeuroEngineering and Rehabilitation applied virtual reality (VR) gaming technology to balance training for a select group of MS patients. Known as CAREN — computer assisted rehabilitation environment — the system offers a revolutionary high-tech therapy designed to improve balance and prevent debilitating falls.
MS is but one of a number of conditions associated with balance problems. CAREN had already proved helpful for patients suffering from:
The system combines physical movement and motor abilities with cognitive perception and sensory skills, but it does so in a safe environment that is interactive and controlled yet also engaging and realistic.
The CAREN system uses a number of components to provide a realistic simulation with measurable results:
The patient stands on an electro hydraulic platform capable of movement: pitch, yaw and roll to six degrees of freedom—up-down, left-right and side-to-side, for example. Platform movements can be spontaneous and interactive or preprogrammed to coordinate with planned visuals.
A safety harness prevents falls but otherwise supports no body weight during exercise.
A wall-sized projection screen displays a virtual environment or scene that the patient must navigate from the platform. Meanwhile, the platform shifts, tilts and sways to correlate with the contours of the terrain directly ahead as the patient progresses through the scene.
Eighteen colorful ball targets heighten elements of challenge, engagement and skill. When a ball appears on the screen, patients have 5 seconds to intercept it. Capturing the moving targets encourages patients to raise and lower their arms between the ball and the walking “home” position, shifting posture while continuing to move and balance.
Powering the entire experience, computer software allows either the participant or the physical therapist to increase or decrease challenge levels.
Over six weeks, all study participants attended twelve 30-minute balance training sessions:
The VR group spent 30 minutes on the interactive computerized system.
The control group completed 10 minutes of stretching exercises and 20 minutes of balancing on a wobble board while catching balls tossed at varying directions and speeds.
At both the start and end of the six-week period, researchers recorded specific measurements through:
Posturography. Tests were conducted with participants’ eyes first open and then closed for comparison. Treadmill data included:
Average pressure distributions for both feet. The researchers also calculated and assigned asymmetry scores for the pressure distributions.
Clinical Balancing Tests. Participants completed a functional reach test, Berg Balance Test, Four Square Step Test and Falls Efficacy Scale International questionnaire.
Improvements overall were significantly greater for the VR group. However, a few elements of the results offer deeper and perhaps promising insight:
Both the VR simulation group and the control group showed improved scores on clinical balancing tests and posturography data—particularly for CoP path length and sway rate.
Changes in CoP were especially significant, as past studies have correlated MS patients’ path length to falls as well as neurological damage.
Closed-eye posturography data demonstrated still greater improvement in the VR group over the control group versus comparisons of the two groups’ open-eye posturography data.
Virtual reality offers promising potential for improving the lives of MS patients through balance training. Too, computerized simulation systems increase confidence levels and compliance rates. For facilities able to support the program’s space and financial demands—and the patients able to access them— balance training is a worthwhile supplemental or complementary therapy intervention strategy of proven value.
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