Virtual reality training was as effective as, but not superior to, conventional therapy for improving arm and hand function after stroke when both were added to standard rehabilitation in the subacute phase of stroke recovery, researchers found.
In the phase III VIRTUES study, conducted at five rehabilitation hospitals in Europe, similar and significant improvements from baseline assessments of arm and hand mobility were seen at the end of the 4-week intervention and at 3-month follow-up, but there was no difference between the two groups in the results for any endpoints (P<0.001), Iris Brunner, PhD, of Aarhus University, Hammel Neurocenter in Denmark, and colleagues reported online in Neurology.
“These results suggest that either type of training could be used, depending on what the patient prefers,” Brunner said in a statement. “Virtual reality training may be a motivating alternative for people to use as a supplement to their standard therapy after a stroke.”
Improvement of upper extremity motor function performance on the Action Research Arm Test (ARAT) was similar with the virtual reality and conventional training after the 4-week intervention and at follow-up. Patients in virtual reality training improved their ARAT scores an average of 12 points (21%) from baseline to the postintervention assessment, and 17 points (30%) at 3-month follow-up, while those receiving conventional training improved 13 points (21%) at those respective assessments.
Likewise, no differences were seen between the virtual reality and conventional training groups in secondary endpoints, including the Box and Blocks Test, Functional Independence Measure, and Patient Global Impression of Change assessment.
The study involved 120 patients (average age 62) enrolled between March 2014 and April 2016 who had mild-to-severe upper extremity impairment in their wrists, hands, or upper arms as a result of suffering a stroke an average of one month before the study started.
For the add-on conventional or virtual reality therapy, participants had four to five hour-long training sessions per week for four weeks: 62 received conventional physical and occupational therapy, and 58 received virtual reality training that involved using a screen and gloves with sensors to play games that could be adapted to the person’s abilities.
Level of impairment had no differential effect on outcomes, which were similar for patients with mild/moderate impairment – defined as the ability to extend the wrist at least 20 degrees and the fingers at least 10 degrees from drop hand position – or severe impairment. On ARAT, improvements at 3-month follow-up in the mild/moderate group were 14 points (25%) with virtual reality (VR) training and 13 points (23%) with conventional therapy, while the severe group improved 23 points (40%) with VR and 23 points (40%) with conventional therapy.
While active training time was considerably increased among severely impaired participants using virtual reality training compared to those using conventional training, this was not reflected in a larger improvement in arm motor function, authors wrote. This reflects a study design limitation, they wrote: The addition of a third arm receiving only standard rehabilitation would have helped identify potential benefits of more intensive training and increased training time, as previously reported.
Danielle Levac, MD, PhD, PT, of Northeastern University in Boston, who was not involved in the study, agreed with Brunner and colleagues that future study should apply outcome measures that differentiate between recovery on an impairment level and compensation, given that training intensity within the first few months of a stroke is crucial for maximally exploiting the window of increased plasticity.
Also, neither patient engagement nor motivation — attributes through which VR systems are thought to increase adherence and potentially enhance motor learning — were “subjectively or objectively measured here, which seriously detracts from the author’s conclusions that VR constitutes ‘motivating’ training,” Levac told MedPage Today.
The numerous small studies that have demonstrated benefits of virtual reality training have used specially engineered rehab-specific systems, whereas a recent larger trial in subacute stroke patients that did not find superiority over conventional training used a commercial gaming system.
“It is the low cost and easy accessibility of off-the-shelf gaming systems that have made them so pervasive and attractive in clinical practice, despite the disadvantages for tailoring to individual patient needs noted by the authors,” Levac said.
Robert Teasell MD, of Western University in London, Ontario, and head of the Stroke Rehabilitation Writing Group for the Canadian Stroke Best Practice Recommendations, told MedPage Today that many small trials of virtual reality training have demonstrated a benefit in stroke patients.
“This study is important because it is comparatively larger, employs a multisite design, and has an active control group which gets an equal amount of ‘conventional’ therapy and not just ‘usual care,'” said Teasell, who was not involved in the study. “It demonstrates effectiveness – although not superiority – of virtual reality as a promising adjunct treatment.”
via Virtual Reality Training Rivals Conventional Therapy After Stroke | Medpage Today