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RAMAT GAN, Israel (Reuters) - A new system is using virtual reality scenes of surfing and jogging to help physiotherapy patients improve their balance and, for some, even to learn to walk again.
Doctors hope the Computer Assisted Rehabilitation Environment (CAREN), developed by motion simulation company MOTEK, can help 26-year-old Ido Borovsky walk with more confidence on a foot whose nerves were damaged.
Borovsky, hit in the left leg by shrapnel in an anti-tank missile attack in Lebanon last summer, was put through the paces at Chaim Sheba Medical Center near Tel Aviv.
Watching a virtual choppy sea on the screen in front of him and to the sound of dance music, Borovsky moved up and down on two steps on a round platform -- motions that steered a boat through the waves.
"They put the platform in a way that I will walk mostly on my injured foot," he said.
Technicians can control the size of the waves and windspeed, monitoring patients' movements and vital signs through sensors stuck to their bodies.
"Ooh, that hurt!" joked a technician, as Borovsky accidentally steered his boat through a numbered marker on a buoy instead of maneuvering around it.
The system, which has a $600,000 price tag, was developed by MOTEK, an Israeli motion simulation company that has most of its operations in the Netherlands.
It has been used for research in other countries, but Israel is the first place where CAREN has been incorporated into medical treatments, said Oshri Even-Zohar, who founed MOTEK with a Dutch partner 10 years ago.
Virtual reality has been used in medicine before.
In the United States, virtual reality helps patients overcome phobias such as the fear of flying by simulating the sights and sounds of the experiences.
Similar methods have been used in the United States to help combat soldiers returning from war to overcome post-traumatic stress, and to distract cancer patients during their chemotherapy treatments.
But virtual reality treatments that incorporate physical movement are new, said Zivner, whose department has treated about 100 patients using CAREN since it was installed two years ago.
"(By) being immersed in a virtual environment, we are distracting them from their pain," Zivner said, describing patients as virtual joysticks as they navigate through scenes on the screen.
Most patients undergo about three sessions a week, each lasting up to 30 minutes, and are also treated with conventional physiotherapy.
The virtual reality system has produced better and faster results and patients found it more enjoyable, he said.
CAREN can also help the disabled "multitask." While moving along a road and side-stepping bumps along the way, Borovsky also uses his hands, attached to sensors, to "hit" two balls darting wildly across the screen.
Such exercises, involving injured and non-injured limbs, can be used to distract patients from their disabilities or pain, and benefit people suffering from Parkinson's Disease or recovering from strokes, Zivner said.
However, patients can hit a "plateau," or reach a stage where there is little to no improvement. While CAREN can help Borovsky better maneuver with his injured leg, it cannot speed up the natural healing process of his injured foot.