Innovation at UPMC: Who Knew Rehab Could Be So Much Fun?

Last November, John Rizzi, 50, noticed numbness and tingling in his feet. A few weeks later he suddenly fell while hunting. By January, he was paralyzed from the chest down — only able to move his head and shrug his shoulders. Eventually diagnosed with an autoimmune disease that damaged the protective covering of the nerves (myelin sheath) and interfered with the signaling process, John arrived in March at the UPMC Rehabilitation Institute and its Gaming and Robotics Center for intensive therapy.

“When I saw the advanced equipment, I was amazed. It inspired me to do whatever I could to walk again,” John says.

Playing computer games and doing simulated tasks using robotic devices such as the Armeo®Boom enabled John to move his arms and regain fine motor skills. A robotic treadmill called the Lokomat® made it possible for him to walk.

“I started seeing gains right away. That made me want to work even harder,” he says.

Fun and Games for Effective Rehabilitation

The Armeo®Boom — available for clinical use at UPMC and nowhere else in the nation — is one of several cutting-edge devices used in rehabilitation at the center. To use it, patients strap their arm into a sling attached to an overhead boom. Robotic supports allow patients to move their arm while playing reach-and-retrieval computer games, such as solitaire and placing apples in a shopping cart, along with simulated tasks such as cooking or cleaning.

“Rehabilitation can be very tedious and painful. A lot of repetition is needed to teach the body to move again,” says Michael Boninger, MD, director of the UPMC Rehabilitation Institute. “Using this technology is kind of sneaky. It’s great to see patients enjoy playing a game when you know they are actually working hard at rehabilitation.”

John, who has regained most of his abilities, agrees. “It was more like playing a game. You’re working, the sweat is running down your face, but it’s fun. You’re getting the movement and the repetition you need, but you’re laughing,” he says.

Dr. Boninger says patients benefit from using the very latest technology. UPMC researchers have developed their own designs, and companies often send their prototypes here for evaluation.

Other innovative devices used at the Center include the GameCycle®, a machine invented at the University of Pittsburgh that combines a stationary hand cycle with a commercial video game; the Armeo®Spring — a companion to the Armeo®Boom; and several Nintendo Wii® systems.

“Technology is very important in rehabilitation. Having a therapist move a patient’s arm repeatedly works, but not nearly as well as having the patient move his own arm while it is supported by a robot and while he is playing a game,” says Dr. Boninger. “Computer games also provide quick feedback and measure improvement, which adds to the sense of accomplishment.”

Virtual Therapy at Home

The Nintendo Wii can be a useful tool for patients as they maintain their physical rehabilitation program at home. It’s relatively inexpensive, and many of the games incorporate the repetitive motion required in ongoing therapeutic exercises.

“We can tell patients to do an exercise 500 times in the next week,” said Dr. Boninger. “But many people just won’t do it. Tell them to play Wii Tennis and they’ll do it and have fun.”

Dr. Michael Boninger shows how the Armeo®Boom’s games and simulated tasks allow rehab patients to work hardand have fun.

* Mr. Rizzi’s treatment and results may not be representative of all similar cases.

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