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Yes, They're Fun, But Can Video Games Also Be Therapeutic?

Video games are mostly used for entertainment and competition, but they also can be used in occupational therapy (OT). This type of therapy focuses on helping people gain or regain skills for daily activities. Those skills may have been lost or diminished due to illness, injury or disability.

What’s the Difference Between Physical Therapy and Occupational Therapy?

You’re recovering from a torn ACL, or maybe you cut a tendon in your hand and now have limited mobility in your thumb. Should you see a physical therapist or an occupational therapist?

While a physical therapist typically helps people increase mobility, such as strengthening the knee after an ACL tear, an occupational therapist helps people do everyday tasks for self-care, such as bathing, dressing, grooming, working and eating. OT also may help a person use adaptive strategies and assistive devices to accomplish these tasks.

There is some overlap between the kinds of treatment occupational and physical therapy provide, but OT is most often used when the hands are the focus of the recovery. In these situations, OT can help increase the range of motion, strengthen the hand and fingers, and use different manipulation techniques to soften scar tissue. Occupational therapists also may employ splint fabrication to either protect an injury or improve range of motion, depending on the clinical situation.

Video Gaming and Occupational Therapy

Video games have many elements that can be helpful with rehabilitation, such as decision making, recognition and spatial awareness. In addition, video games emphasize or require the use of different motor skills. However, not all systems or games are created equally. Classic gaming systems use a hand-based controller, predominantly requiring the use of thumbs and a gross grasp pattern to theMom playing a video game with her son controller.  Thus, these systems predominantly promote thumb movement and dexterity.  In contrast, systems like the Wii have a remote (Wiimote) that encourages larger motor patterns. This potentially promotes movement to the entire body, which may be more beneficial, depending on a person’s specific needs.

Recognizing the potential occupational health benefits, game designers and therapists have teamed up to create games specifically with rehab in mind. By incorporating an element of competition in the game environment of these video games, people may be more likely to participate in rehabilitation activities.  Video games also may be designed to develop strategy and specific cognitive skills, which may be useful to anyone who has had a neurologic injury.

One game, for example, developed at the University of Southern California, is designed to be used by people while standing or sitting, such as in a wheelchair. The game also collects data on movement and range, which the therapist can then use to plan next steps in treatment.

OT potentially can benefit anyone who has had a loss of physical function, but it can be challenging. The inclusion of video games can add an element of fun and competition to therapy, while also enhancing recovery.

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