Making physical therapy a game could benefit patients, therapists alike

BOSTON — Researchers at the University of Massachusetts Lowell are developing virtual therapy programs that allow patients to play a video game at home to keep up physical therapy.

The game is called Recovery Rapids. It requires a patient to navigate virtual rapids in a kayak. Each of the physical steps, such as batting away pests or turning the boat away from rocks, gets the patient moving in a way that actually helps their recovery.

Data is collected and sent to a physical therapist for analysis to make sure the patient is meeting appropriate benchmarks.

Professor Lynne Gauthier is leading the effort to develop this therapeutic game at UMass-Lowell.

“Not only does it increase access to people in rural areas that just don’t have access to a clinic, but also people who live in cities that can’t easily get to their therapy appointments," Gauthier explained.

There’s another big plus to getting therapy this way, according to Gauthier.

“Rehab doesn’t end when your insurance runs out. When someone has to rely on a clinic, their access to treatment ends as soon as their insurance no longer covers it, and usually, they don’t get enough rehabilitation,” she said.

Recovery Rapids was originally designed to help patients after suffering a stroke, but the potential is far greater.

“[Especially for] people with other neurological conditions that make it difficult to move part of their body,” she said.

That could include children with cerebral palsy, a young adult with a traumatic brain injury, or someone with multiple sclerosis.

Nancy Strahl was part of an initial trial for the game. She used it from her home in a remote section of Oregon after having a stroke. She says the game was an effective therapy.

“If definitely did not feel like physical therapy," Strahl said. "It was too much fun. You know, physical therapy isn’t usually fun.”

But it is valuable. Gauthier says the goal is not to replace a physical therapist but to free them up to do more advanced treatments.

“Now the therapist has more time to talk to the clients about how they can actually be more effective using their weaker side in daily activities, and that’s what really helps people change people’s lives, because when they’re using it more for everyday life, their life now becomes their rehabilitation,” said Gauthier.

Before playing the game, Strahl had never done any kind of rowing.

The game prompted her to join an adaptive rowing team and now she gets out on the water every week.

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