Tech Talk: Tapping Computer Power to Promote Physical Therapy

Physical therapy (PT) for rheumatoid arthritis (RA) patients is crucial to treating their disease, but actually doing it can be grueling for many of them. But what if PT were something that they looked forward to? What if it were something they thought of as actually kind of pleasant?

That could change everything.

A group of researchers at Northeastern University in Boston is trying to harness the power of computer technology to do just that.

The project involves the use of a hands-free mouse that enables a patient with severe arthritis to move the cursor around the screen and to participate in a video game using only movements they can handle—essentially getting them to perform physical therapy while in play mode.

The project is a foray into “pervasive computing,” or the blending of wireless technology with electronics in an effort to have computing blend as seamlessly as possible with everyday life.

Technology Difficult for Some with RA

Maura Iversen, PT, DPT, SD, MPH, professor and chair of the department of physical therapy at Northeastern and associate editor of The Rheumatologist, says many patients find it difficult to use a computer in the traditional way—and patients complain to her that they’ve simply stopped trying. “These individuals may have—if they haven’t received aggressive early therapy or if their disease itself has been highly aggressive—a lot of derangement of the joints in their hands,” she says. “So managing a traditional keyboard or managing a traditional mouse, even if it’s a wireless mouse, can be difficult for them.”

Pervasive computing has been used successfully in other medical disciplines—for patients with spinal injuries and victims of stroke, for instance—but not for RA.

“There’s really nothing in the field at all for RA,” Dr. Iversen says. “This population of patients could be left behind if we don’t begin to think about how we can apply computing technologies to a vast array of individuals with chronic illness.”

Physical therapy is crucial not only to the health of the joints, but also in minimizing the cardiovascular risk that comes with RA, she says.

Therapeutic Microchips

Technology is infusing physical therapy more and more. Gym exercise logs, using flash drives inserted into weight systems, help patients and their therapists record and track progress. The use of accelerometers—a topic on which Dr. Iversen has a National Institutes of Health grant—has proven helpful by measuring the amount of physical activity patients engage in by assessing body movement.

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