06 December 2008

Video game system valuable tool in rehabilitation

For patients on Unit 58 at the Foothills Medical Centre, rehab can be fun and games.

The unit, home of the centre's Tertiary Neuro Rehab Program, utilizes a Nintendo Wii video game system as part of its rehabilitation efforts for patients with brain and spinal cord injuries, those who have suffered strokes and others with different neurological diagnoses.

Andy Ganden, a recreational therapist on the unit, says the Wii is just one of many tools used for rehab but adds it's a valuable one.

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Font:****"There's therapeutic value to it," Ganden says of the innovative gaming system that responds to body movement, as opposed to other gaming systems that use a standard controller.

"We use it to reintroduce patients to previously-learned skills. It can help with eye-hand co-ordination, memory and retention. Plus, it has a nice competitive flavour to it but that's not the focus," adds Ganden.

Patients can play virtually any sport from tennis to bowling to boxing, as well as more rehab-focused games that sharpen cognitive skills, according to Kim Francis, a recreational therapist and clinical leader on the unit.

"A lot of patients are in wheelchairs and many have limited use of their hands and arms," she says.

"They can't play traditional video games because of the fine motor skills and dexterity needed," she says, twiddling her thumbs mimicking playing a conventional video game.

"We can adapt the Wii to meet different needs."

Take Jack Veldhuyzen, for instance. He was an avid golfer before he came to Unit 58 with Guillain-Barre syndrome, a serious disorder that occurs when the body's immune system mistakenly attacks part of the nervous system. It leads to nerve inflammation that causes muscle weakness, which continues to get worse.

The syndrome forced Veldhuyzen off the golf course but he was able to play many rounds of Wii golf with Ganden during his rehabilitation.

"It helped with balance, motor skills and with confidence," says Veldhuyzen, who recently played his first 12 holes of real golf since being released from the hospital.

"It lets you get back into doing things. It just helps prepare you to get back into normal life again," said Veldhuyzen.

That's what Francis and Ganden hoped would happen.

"It gives our patients a little bit of confidence in terms of if they golfed before, they can do a bit of golfing here, although it's a different kind of golf," Francis said.

"It's a game situation where they can have a positive experience without really putting themselves on a golf course where they might fail."

Francis says the mental boost that the gaming system provides is as important as the physical benefits. At a basic level, the video game gives patients an enjoyable thing to do during their lengthy hospital stay.

"The tertiary patients are here for a long time," says Francis. "It's not just a six-day stay. Institutionalization does happen. With stuff like the Wii, we can help temper it a little."

"As well," adds Ganden, "we can play games where we have teams and the patients learn how to work together and build social skills. It's like a virtual experience. It's good preparation for the real deal."

As valuable as the Wii has been for the patients, Francis says it's also been a positive experience for the Unit 58 staff.

"From a team-building perspective, it's been great," she says.

"We'll come in here during our lunch and compete against each other. We just have fun and we laugh. It's a byproduct I never would have thought of."

Chris Simnett works for the Calgary Health Region

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