A computer game which improves and overcomes the physical symptoms of a stroke using circus tricks has been launched as an innovative way of helping people overcome a stroke.
Stroke experts from Newcastle University have teamed up with a professional game studio, Limbs Alive, to develop the first in a set of titles which will train patients to regain hand or arm control.
After a stroke, a patient can recover control of the weak arm or hand even after a long time but this requires many months of expert, daily therapy. Providing the support and motivation to enable people to carry out such a demanding programme is costly and difficult and this often limits recovery. This is where the newly-developed suite of computer games called “Circus Challenge” can make a real difference.
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Players use wireless controllers to try their hand at virtual circus acts such as lion-taming, being a trapeze artist, juggling or plate spinning.
Former ship-builder Danny Mann, from Dudley, Northumberland, has tried the game and was impressed.
The 68-year-old grandfather who had a stroke in February said: "This is the first time I've ever played a video game - I mean, I don't even own a computer.
"It was good fun though it did feel like I was doing exercise and I worked up a sweat.
"The therapy exercises I normally have to do are dull but necessary but this game is something different which encourages me to keep going with my therapy.
"When I got the controllers I tried being a trapeze artist - something I never expected to try at my time of life.
"I would really like to play with my grandchildren - I can't think of a better motivation than sharing a game with them to help me on my road to recovery."
This is the first game designed as a therapy to be played at home while still being fun, Newcastle University said.
Janet Eyre, Professor of Paediatric Neuroscience at the university, said: "The brain can re-learn control of the weak arm but this needs frequent therapy over many months and there are not enough therapists to provide this on a one-to-one basis.
"80% of patients do not regain full recovery of arm and hand function and this really limits their independence and ability to return to work.
"Patients need to be able to use both their arms and hands for most every day activities such as doing up a zip, making a bed, tying shoe laces, unscrewing a jar.
"With our video game, people get engrossed in the competition and action of the circus characters and forget that the purpose of the game is for therapy."
Circus Challenge gets more difficult as players' recovery and strength improve.
The tasks require both gross and fine motor skills and can be played by someone in a wheelchair.
Gamers of varying abilities can play together, meaning stroke patients can challenge relatives and friends.
The company now hopes to develop games to assist in therapies for other conditions such as cerebral palsy, chronic lung disease, type 2 diabetes and dementia.
Professor Eyre said: "Patients who have played the games find them easy to use, challenging and fun.
"They can be easily set up and played at home since they are designed by a professional games studio to be played on a laptop or PC.
"Patients forget they're doing therapy and just enjoy the challenge of playing."
The project received £1.5 million from the Health Innovation Challenge Fund, a partnership between the Wellcome Trust and the Department of Health, to allow further development.
In the UK, 150,000 people have a stroke leading to a cost of care and loss of income of £4 billion every year.
The Chief Medical Officer, Professor Dame Sally Davies, said: "Recovering from a stroke can be a very long and painful process.
"I am delighted that this example of remarkable innovation in the NHS will bring real benefits to patients.
"The Government is committed to supporting such work and bringing breakthroughs from every area - even video gaming - to the front line of patient care."
The Stroke Association welcomed the game's development - as long as it does not replace traditional physiotherapy.
The association's director of research, Dr Peter Coleman, said: "New technologies and games like this one can be used by stroke survivors in their own homes.
"However, it's important that they do not replace physiotherapists but instead support the vital work they do.
"We believe in life after stroke and campaign for every stroke survivor to access the support they need after leaving hospital so that they can make their best possible recovery."
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