Rehabbing with wii: Physical therapists use video games to help patients

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Physical rehab can be a major pain, but it's all a game to Jerry Pope.

The 77-year-old semipro tennis player suffered a debilitating stroke in June and is using a hot new video game system to help him get back onto the real court. He's one of several patients using the Nintendo Wii as part of an innovative program at the Sister Kenny Rehabilitation Institute at Minneapolis' Abbott Northwestern Hospital.

"I'm not a video game player," Pope admitted during a recent rehab session at the hospital. "This is the only one I've ever played."

Gripping the Wii's unique motion-sensing wireless controller in his right fist, Pope swung his arm as if hitting a real tennis ball. The character on-screen responded by hitting the ball to a computer-controlled player in the virtual tennis game. Pope swung his arm each time the ball returned, and his Wii avatar responded in kind.

"Because of the interaction of the game, I get the physical sensation of playing tennis," Pope said later. "It really works. It can fool me into thinking that I'm doing what's happening on the screen."

Pope has been playing tennis for 60 years. His prowess on the senior circuit earned him induction into the U.S. Tennis Association's Northern Hall of Fame in 1999. He was in Indianapolis for a national tournament when the stroke hit June 1. He was hospitalized there for 13 days before being moved to the Twin Cities for a 10-day hospital stay.

"He couldn't even stand up," his wife, Gloria, recalled. "His whole right side was shot."

Just a few days after the stroke, Pope started traditional rehab to regain the use of his body, but he detested many of the repetitive exercises.

Physical therapists are often told to find something the patient loves to do and use that activity as therapy, said physical therapist Jacob Pattengill, with Select Physical Therapy in Cape Girardeau.

Occupational therapist Matthew White put that theory to practice with Pope. He thought the physical movements required to play games on the system would make it a good fit for rehab.

Sister Kenny has used other high-tech gear for rehab as part of its advanced rehabilitative technologies program, which dates to 1995. With much of that equipment costing thousands of dollars, the $250 Wii was a relatively easy sell for the Sister Kenny Foundation.

"It's a good idea," Pattengill said. "I could see if you had the financial capability to put a Nintendo Wii in your facility" it would be a useful tool.

"I could definitely see how it would work," he said. "Just to break up the monotony of the standard practices."

The Wii makes rehab fun, motivating patients in their recovery, White said.

"It's just one more tool I have as a therapist," he said. "It's one more way to challenge Jerry."

The Wii was released in November and became an instant sensation.

The system's use of broader human movement to control video games rather than just button-pushing dexterity has made it a hit with people who have never played games before. But while the Wii was designed for entertainment purposes, increasingly it is being used in practical applications.

It's something more functional, where the person can't actually get out and play tennis, they can use the Wii to go through the motions, Pattengill said.

"We've seen reports of soldiers returning from Iraq using Wii as part of their rehab and a way to help them heal," said Perrin Kaplan, Nintendo's vice president of marketing and corporate affairs. "We've heard directly from several cancer patients telling us the Wii is an integral part of their recovery and rehabilitation, and it makes a huge difference in their spirits. It's especially helpful when most of the people using it for these kinds of reasons can't get out of their homes easily."

Southeast Missourian reporter Chris Harris contributed to this story.

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