Over the past few years, European researchers have been working on what may be the future of physical therapy for some chronic pain patients: an “exergame” called PlayMancer. Exergames (exercise games) have become more popular in the mainstream, including Wii Yoga and a line of fitness-specific games released by Kinect. But the PlayMancer represents an advancement in gaming technology that could serve as an effective rehabilitative therapy for people with chronic pain conditions.
The reason PlayMancer is superior to the Wii and Kinect is that it offers far more precise measurements of the body’s movements, the positions of its joints and the muscles being used. The game requires users to wear a body suit and to play in a room with special camera equipment set up that allows the game to pick up data about the user. There are a number of different types of PlayMancer games being researched, some with the goal of physical rehabilitation and others designed to help patients cope with mental health issues, including binge eating and gambling addiction. Psychologists, physical therapists and game developers work together to develop games toward these various ends.
The exergame method of physical rehabilitation is promising for a number of reasons. First, it may one day serve as a viable alternative for patients who can’t access or afford physical therapy. For now, the technology required is prohibitive for everyday use by most people, but advances may change this. Second, even for people who do go to physical therapy, the game may serve as a complementary method of rehabilitation at home, speeding up progress. Finally, the game encourages greater adherence to an exercise program, since it’s actually fun to play.
Players with back and neck pain are guided through a series of motions designed to engage and stretch specific muscles. The player may be “rock climbing” in the game, but the purpose of the activity is to stretch and strengthen in real life. Just as in normal games, when you succeed at a task or do a good job in PlayMancer, you’re rewarded by going on to another level. “Another chapter of my character’s ongoing story is revealed,” reports Clark Boyd, who wrote an article on the game back in 2011 for Public Radio International. The data collected by the game can help health professionals track patient progress.
For more on Boyd’s first-hand report, see www.pri.org.
Last year, a study was released that considered patient experience and physical outcome measures for 10 patients who used the exergame for four weeks. The patients reported very good usability ratings (average of 78.5 on a 100-point scale) and high motivation. The researchers measured three motor skills before and after the treatment intervention: walking velocity, overhead reaching and neck mobility. They found that, overall, these skills improved after 4 weeks of PlayMancer play.
See more on the study at www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov.
While this game is certainly promising, we shouldn’t conclude that the physical therapist will soon be obsolete. While a well-developed game may be able to help many people with chronic back pain and other conditions, there’s nothing quite like the one-on-one, individualized care you can get from a person.