Wii Habilitation at Walter Reed

Article excerpt

SPC. Matt Bell began his journey down the road to recovery more than a year and a half ago, after being shot by a sniper while serving as a medic in Iraq.

His treatment and recovery started at Fort Bliss, Texas, and has continued since his transfer to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., in May. Bell was hit just above the left clavicle and suffered major nerve damage in his left hand and limited mobility in his shoulder.

"I couldn't even do the simplest tasks," Bell said. "I couldn't tie my own shoes, buckle a belt, button my pants--I couldn't even put my beret on by myself."

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Several surgeries and months of physical and occupational rehabilitation later, he is getting back much of the independence he thought was lost. Part of his success can be attributed to an unlikely source--Nintendo's Wii electronic-gaming console.

A successful gaming console since it first landed on store shelves in 2006, the Wii is increasingly used as an engaging form of therapy in retirement communities, and as a way to keep children in many youth programs active while still enjoying video games.

The occupational-therapy clinic at WRAMC has enlisted the system as a highly effective tool that aids in rehabilitation and reintegration. Maj. Matt St. Laurent, an occupational therapist at WRAMC, said incorporating the Wii as a rehabilitation implement made sense.

"We are in the gaming age, and almost all the people who come through here have played video games at some point in their lives," Laurent said. "So it makes sense to use a tool they're familiar with."

Bell said he had only played with the Wii once before arriving at WRAMC, and that was purely for fun. Now, he plays every day. Games have helped him retrain his hand. "Wii Sports" forces him to grip the remote controller and move his hand, and sometimes his entire arm, to play successfully. "Guitar Hero" promotes dexterity in his fingers, which became rigid from lack of use after his injury.

Hector Romero, another WRAMC occupational therapist, said the Wii focuses a patient's attention on playing, not on the pain and fatigue that often accompany rehabilitation.

"When the body is hurt, it tries to stop movement because all it wants to do is heal," Romero said. "With the Wii, patients overcome their fears and the body's reaction to movement. It is a positive distraction, and is extremely effective in improving dexterity and eliciting an increased range of motion."

Occupational therapists at Walter Reed incorporate other techniques to make the Wii therapy more effective as patients regain strength and mobility, Romero said. During his session, Romero strapped a weight around Bell's affected wrist to increase the strength in his hand, wrist arm and shoulder.

"I might notice the pain in the first minute. But then I get into the game, and I totally forget about it. Then it just becomes fun, and I just try to focus on the game," Bell said. …