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Virtual reality Transforming Physiotherapy

Wendy Powell, a PhD student in the School of Creative Technologies at Portsmouth University, UK, has created the first virtual physiotherapy device.

The system is mindbogglingly simple, and at this time, appears to be successful on patients. Clinical trials on real patients are taking place in collaboration with experts at the renowned McGill University in Canada. A former chiropractor, Wendy hopes it will pave the way for a new and innovative approach to physiotherapy.

The interface uses a specially modified treadmill, and a C3 visual display - screens in front of and to either side of the patient, displaying the virtual environment. The system helps patients by using moving images to trick the patient's brain into thinking they are walking more slowly than they are, which in turn encourages them to walk faster

Over time, this can be used to improve a patient's gait, almost without the patient realising it. Handles on either side of the treadmill are ideal for those who are fearful of falling over - they offer a comfort zone, whilst the immersive display projects them walking down a street.

"The virtual system encourages patients to walk more quickly and for longer, almost without them realising it. We're effectively fooling the brain and the body," Wendy said, speaking about the technology. "The environment is stimulating and entertaining and there's less fear of falling over. Our test subjects are usually surprised when I tell them they've improved by up to 20 per cent."

Wendy hopes that the system will also help older stoke patients who often find traditional approaches to improving their speed and distance difficult because it relies very much on self-motivation.

She said: "After a stroke or fall many older people lack motivation and confidence and they don't feel steady on their feet so getting out and about can be an issue and they can find the whole process rather dull."

Wendy's system uses a variety of different images from urban landscapes to forest and mountain scenes. She has built a system of rewards into some of the programmes, which encourages the patient to pick up objects and collect points. She said that older people were not at all put off by the 'computer game' element but seemed to enjoy it.

Andy Long, 61, a stroke survivor who has tested Wendy's system for himself, described it as "magic."

He said: "The vast majority of stroke survivors cannot use a normal treadmill because they are not in control and many can only hold on with one hand making it almost impossible. Walking is the best possible exercise for their bodies and this system would help enormously.


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