Virtual reality for stroke rehabilitation

Review question: We wanted to compare the effects of virtual reality on arm function (and other outcomes such as walking speed and independence in managing daily activities) after stroke versus an alternative intervention or no intervention.

Background: Many people after having a stroke have difficulty moving, thinking and sensing. This often results in problems with everyday activities such as writing, walking and driving. Virtual reality and interactive video gaming are new types of therapy being provided to people after having a stroke. The therapy involves using computer-based programs that are designed to simulate real life objects and events. Virtual reality and interactive video gaming may have some advantages over traditional therapy approaches as they can give people an opportunity to practise everyday activities that are not or cannot be practised within the hospital environment. Furthermore, there are several features of virtual reality that might mean that patients spend more time in therapy: for example, the activity might be more motivating.

Study characteristics: We identified 37 studies involving 1019 people after stroke. A wide range of virtual reality programs were used and most of the programs required the person using the program to be relatively active (as opposed to smaller movements associated with simply moving a joystick). The evidence is current to November 2013.

Key results: Twelve trials tested whether the use of virtual reality compared with conventional therapy resulted in improved ability to use one's arm and found that the use of virtual reality resulted in better arm function. Four trials tested whether the use of virtual reality compared with conventional therapy resulted in improved walking speed. There was no evidence that virtual reality was more effective in this case. Eight trials found that there was some evidence that virtual reality resulted in a slightly better ability to manage everyday activities such as showering and dressing. However, these positive effects were found soon after the end of the treatment and it is not clear whether the effects are long lasting. Results should be interpreted with caution as the studies involved small numbers of participants. Very few people using virtual reality reported pain, headaches or dizziness and no serious adverse events were reported.

Quality of the evidence: We classified the quality of the evidence as low for arm function. The quality of the evidence was very low for walking ability, global motor function and independence in performing daily activities. The quality of the evidence for each outcome was limited due to small numbers of study participants, inconsistent results across studies and poor reporting of study details.

Authors' conclusions: 

We found evidence that the use of virtual reality and interactive video gaming may be beneficial in improving upper limb function and ADL function when used as an adjunct to usual care (to increase overall therapy time) or when compared with the same dose of conventional therapy. There was insufficient evidence to reach conclusions about the effect of virtual reality and interactive video gaming on grip strength, gait speed or global motor function. It is unclear at present which characteristics of virtual reality are most important and it is unknown whether effects are sustained in the longer term.

Read the full abstract...

Virtual reality and interactive video gaming have emerged as recent treatment approaches in stroke rehabilitation. In particular, commercial gaming consoles have been rapidly adopted in clinical settings. This is an update of a Cochrane Review published in 2011.


Primary objective: To determine the efficacy of virtual reality compared with an alternative intervention or no intervention on upper limb function and activity.

Secondary objective: To determine the efficacy of virtual reality compared with an alternative intervention or no intervention on: gait and balance activity, global motor function, cognitive function, activity limitation, participation restriction and quality of life, voxels or regions of interest identified via imaging, and adverse events. Additionally, we aimed to comment on the feasibility of virtual reality for use with stroke patients by reporting on patient eligibility criteria and recruitment.

Search strategy: 

We searched the Cochrane Stroke Group Trials Register (October 2013), the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (The Cochrane Library 2013, Issue 11), MEDLINE (1950 to November 2013), EMBASE (1980 to November 2013) and seven additional databases. We also searched trials registries and reference lists.

Selection criteria: 

Randomised and quasi-randomised trials of virtual reality ("an advanced form of human-computer interface that allows the user to 'interact' with and become 'immersed' in a computer-generated environment in a naturalistic fashion") in adults after stroke. The primary outcome of interest was upper limb function and activity. Secondary outcomes included gait and balance function and activity, and global motor function.

Data collection and analysis: 

Two review authors independently selected trials based on pre-defined inclusion criteria, extracted data and assessed risk of bias. A third review author moderated disagreements when required. The authors contacted investigators to obtain missing information.

Main results: 

We included 37 trials that involved 1019 participants. Study sample sizes were generally small and interventions varied. The risk of bias present in many studies was unclear due to poor reporting. Thus, while there are a large number of randomised controlled trials, the evidence remains 'low' or 'very low' quality when rated using the GRADE system. Control groups received no intervention or therapy based on a standard care approach. Intervention approaches in the included studies were predominantly designed to improve motor function rather than cognitive function or activity performance. The majority of participants were relatively young and more than one year post stroke. Primary outcome: results were statistically significant for upper limb function (standardised mean difference (SMD) 0.28, 95% confidence intervals (CI) 0.08 to 0.49 based on 12 studies with 397 participants). Secondary outcomes: there were no statistically significant effects for grip strength, gait speed or global motor function. Results were statistically significant for the activities of daily living (ADL) outcome (SMD 0.43, 95% CI 0.18 to 0.69 based on eight studies with 253 participants); however, we were unable to pool results for cognitive function, participation restriction, quality of life or imaging studies. There were few adverse events reported across studies and those reported were relatively mild. Studies that reported on eligibility rates showed that only 26% of participants screened were recruited.