“It’s fun and it helps me get better”: how virtual reality therapy is helping heal patients with brain and spinal cord injuries

“The game I’ve been playing is called‘ fruit ninja, ’” Voltin said smiling. “It gives me a chance to play and have fun, and to use the muscles that I hope I don’t use as regularly as when I just exercise.”

“You put on these headphones and forget you’re in the world,” explained Justin Hanson, Voltin’s occupational therapist. “You’re set in this new virtual world and you forget the knee pain, the back pain, focused on this exciting world where you are.”

For many of us, virtual reality is a practical and direct way to play video games or get school or work training.

At Courage Kenny’s facilities, these headphones and manual controllers help rehabilitate patients with brain or spinal cord injuries.

Hanson said patients end up working harder and are more motivated.

“People put on these headphones and are so immersed in the game and what they’re doing,” said Anna Braun, the institute’s director of therapy. “They challenge themselves. They want to beat their last score, so now they do 25% more than the day before or the week before.”

But in the real world, it has been a tough journey for Voltin.

“I have a broken C1, C5 and C6,” he said calmly.

Voltin’s injuries include three broken vertebrae and a traumatic spinal cord injury from a devastating car accident.

“I guess I fell asleep,” he recalled. “I got off the road, applied the brakes, but ended up hitting a ditch and ended up rolling the car with my truck.”

On May 2, Voltin was moving from the subway to Virginia, Minnesota, when he crashed his van near Lake Sturgeon.

“The taxi was almost shattered, so I was pretty sure I was cut off from the truck,” he recalled.

Now, after surgery to fuse two vertebrae, this VR therapy uses repetitive movements to strengthen the muscles of the arm, shoulder and pectoral.

“It’s a fun and easy way to practice exercise or activity on the upper extremities,” Hanson said.

Allina said about 150 have undergone virtual reality therapy at Courage Kenny.

The 3-year program is in the process of expanding from two to nineteen locations, funded by a $ 180,000 Courage Kenny Foundation grant.

The medical team said these exercises do more than strengthen.

Braun said the sessions help reconnect the patient’s neural pathways, actually stimulating nerve cells to regenerate, sending signals between the brain and muscles.

“We know that the more opportunities we allow the brain to connect to our muscles, the more times we send that signal down that pathway, the clearer that pathway will be,” he said. “It boils down to this repetition.”

Voltin says the half-hour sessions over the past six weeks are making a difference.

“I started where it was hard for me to carry my arms up to my shoulder and now I can scratch my eyes for the first time in the last two days,” he stated. “So I’m definitely getting stronger, with my arms, getting more movement.”

Voltin says he hopes the therapy can help restore the sensation of the fingers or lower body.

He still has a lot of work to do.

Voltin’s doctors say his discharge at home is still a month or two away.

Still, he says this game-changing drug provides him with a dose of optimism for the future.

“It’s fun and it helps me, it helps me improve, which is all a person can ask for,” Voltin says. “Get stronger and be healthier.”

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