COLUMBIA — A video game showing a shuttle and a space station appeared on Lindsey Rowe's laptop screen Thursday morning.
A physical therapist, Rowe was ready to demonstrate an exercise she often asks patients to try to help them stimulate their muscles.
She squeezed her fist, and an electrode taped to her arm guided the shuttle toward the station. If the shuttle docks, the exercise has been completed successfully.
Rowe strained to bring the shuttle closer to the station, but her hand gave out just before they linked.
"The goal is to make the shuttle dock," she said. "It's hard to do!"
Rowe, who works on Boone Hospital's therapy team, has been using video games for nearly three years to put a little fun back into the sometimes tedious experience of physical therapy.
Making the shuttle and the space station connect is just one example of video feedback patients use during therapeutic games — squeeze hard enough and it works; otherwise, the shuttle is lost in space.
Rowe treats patients with a range of pelvic problems, including incontinence, general pelvic pain and childbirth-related muscle problems.
Her patients, mostly female, range from teens to women in their 80s. Video feedback tells users when they are exercising the correct muscle and if they have put in enough effort to make progress.
To demonstrate the device, Rowe plugged one end of the electrode into her laptop and attached the other end to her forearm. Ordinarily, that end is attached to the patient's pelvic floor muscles.
She made a fist, and the laptop's video display showed a simple graph with a fever line that went up as Rowe increased her exertion.
The visual feedback can also be used to help patients relax clenched muscles, a process called "downtraining." Rowe said she treated a patient who had pelvic pain from habitual clenching and video feedback helped the patient focus on the muscle to relax it.
Tracy Evers, manager of the Boone Therapy Team, said another machine used by the therapists was "kind of a precursor to the Wii Fit."
Known as a "balance master," it helps physical therapist Melinda Boice determine the underlying problem in patients who have balance trouble.
"We see a fair amount of people that have balance problems, but they come not knowing why," Boice said.
She said a big benefit for patients comes from how quickly a diagnosis can be made. When a patient's insurance specifies a limited number of treatments, the machine ensures that more time is spent on therapy and less on diagnosis.
This winter she had a patient in his late 70s who had a stroke. She said he was walking fairly well but still had some trouble with balance. Using the balance master, Boice determined he had an inner-ear problem.
After making the diagnosis, Boice designed a treatment program for the patient that restored his balance to the point where he could do all his pre-stroke activities.
Evers said people often come to therapists needing just one exercise to get better.
Figuring out the right one is often the key to successful patient rehabilitation, she said.
"That's the therapist's job."