'It's fun and it's helping me to get better': How virtual reality therapy is helping brain, spinal cord injured patients heal | KSTP.com

'It's fun and it's helping me to get better': How virtual reality therapy is helping brain, spinal cord injured patients heal

Rich Reeve
Created: July 08, 2021 11:42 PM

In a therapy room at Allina Health's Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute, Jeff Voltin was working up a sweat.

"Just trying to exercise and get stronger," he said. "Most of my therapy is, you know, doing repetitions of stuff."

But Voltin, 56, from Ramsey, is no ordinary therapy patient.

You could call him a ninja warrior, using virtual reality games to rehab his body, partially paralyzed from the neck down.

"The game that I've been playing is called 'fruit ninja,'" Voltin said, smiling. "It gives me a chance to just kind of play and have fun, and use the muscles that hopefully I don't use as regularly as when I'm just doing exercises."

"You put this headset on, and you just kind of forget you're in the world," explained Justin Hanson, Voltin's occupational therapist. "You're placed in this new virtual world and you forget about the pain in your knee, the pain in your back, focused on this exciting world you're in."

For many of us, virtual reality is an up-close, hands-on way to play video games or get school or job training.

At the Courage Kenny facility, those headsets and hand controllers help rehabilitate patients with brain or spinal injuries.

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

"People are getting on those headsets and they're so immersed in the game and what they're doing," Anna Braun, the institute's therapy manager, said. "They challenge themselves. They want to beat their last score, so now they're doing 25% more than the day prior or the week prior."

But in the real world, it's been a hard journey for Voltin.

"I got a broken C1, C5, and C6," he said quietly.

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

"I assume I fell asleep," he recalled. "I went off the road, I applied my brakes, but I ended up hitting a ditch and ended up cart-wheeling my truck."

On May 2, Voltin was moving from the metro to Virginia, Minn., when he crashed his pickup near Sturgeon Lake.

"The cab was pretty much smashed down to nothing, so I was pretty sure they cut me out of the truck," he remembered.

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

"It's a fun, easy way to engage in upper extremity exercise or activity," Hanson said.

Allina said about 150 have undergone VR therapy at Courage Kenny.

The program, about 3 years old, 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 to reconnect a patient's neural pathways, actually stimulating nerve cells to regenerate, sending signals between the brain and muscles.

"We know the more opportunities we allow the brain to connect with our muscles, the more times we send that signal down that pathway, the clearer that pathway becomes," she said. "It comes down to that repetition."

Voltin says the half-hour sessions during the last six weeks are making a difference.

"I started out where I had a hard time getting my arms up to my shoulder, and now I can scratch my eyes for the first time in the last couple of days," he declared. "So I'm definitely getting stronger, my arms,  getting more movement out of them."

Voltin says he hopes the therapy might help bring back some feeling to his fingers or his lower body.

He's still got a lot of work to do.

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

Still, he says this game-changing medicine is giving him a dose of optimism for the future.

"It's fun and it's helping me, helping me to get better, which is all a person can ask for," Voltin says. "Get stronger and get healthier."

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