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Are There Health Benefits to Playing Video Games for MS Patients?

Researches found that MS patients can find pain relief through some video games. (GETTY IMAGES)

Research finds the games may help with MS symptoms like balance and fine motor control.

Medical experts are always looking for ways to help MS patients cope with their symptoms. Although the exact cause of MS is unknown and there's still no cure, there are numerous treatments to help ease its difficulties. Surprisingly, video games may be one. Several studies show electronic gaming can help MS patients with common problems such as balance, pain, cognitive function and fine motor control.

With MS, the body's immune system mistakenly goes on the attack, targeting the protective sheath (myelin) around the nerves of the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord). Eventually, the disease disrupts the communication between the brain and other parts of the body, bringing a wide range of physical, cognitive and visual problems.

"We know from emerging evidence that activating the brain in different ways improves functioning for many MS patients," says Dr. Timothy Vollmer, professor of neurology at the University of Colorado–Denver. "One way to do it is through physical exercise. Moving not only keeps the body fit but also activates the brain. The problem is too often patients lose their motivation and stop following an exercise plan. Video games, whether teaching dance steps or using a balance board, not only help patients stay moving and engaged, but offer other benefits including improvement in balance and gait."

For example, a study published in November 2014 in the journal Radiology reported that 24 MS patients improved their balance and even lessened their risk of falling as a result of playing video games using a Wii balance board. The game works by having users stand on a board while shifting their weight to follow the interactive instructions on the screen.

Another study showed improved balance, gait and posture in 61 MS patients after using exergames (video exercise games). Participants were divided into three groups: the first used a stable balance board; the second engaged in conventional therapy; and the third used an unstable board. Researchers found the third group that exercised on an unstable board improved as much as the group involved in conventional therapy. They also gained added benefits: increased motivation and adherence. The results were published in the October 2014 Archives of Physical Rehabilitation and Medicine.

High blood pressure, high cholesterol and depression can all follow an MS diagnosis.

"Both studies, as well as other video gaming research, involve a comparatively small number of MS patients, so there's no proven statistical significance yet," points out Dr. Farrah Mateen, associate professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School. "That said, there are clear benefits for using video games with our MS patients. It's something they can do at home, in their own free time – and it's pleasurable – so it's more likely to keep them motivated."

Pleasure can be hard to find if you have MS, especially when you're dealing with a lot of pain. According to the National MS Society, 50 percent of MS patients experience physical discomfort. But researchers have discovered that pain can be reduced with the help of certain video games. How? By taking patients' minds off their suffering, reports a March 2011 study published in the journal, Pain Research and Management.

Another study found that some virtual reality games not only lessen discomfort, but also decrease the time spent thinking about it by reducing the activity of particular brain regions involved in experiencing pain, reports a 2012 article in the journal Pain Management.

"It's certainly worth a try because the alternative is medication," Mateen says. "And the medications we have for pain aren't perfect. They have side effects and can be expensive. Plus, medications need to be refilled which often means a trip to the doctor, not to mention needing to remember to take the drugs. Video games don't have all that baggage."

What's more, video games can boost the brain's power, and that's especially helpful for MS patients who are dealing with impaired cognitive function, often described as "brain fog.'" In a 2016 study, researchers from the Department of Neurology and Psychiatry at Rome's Sapienza University looked at the effects on MS patients during an eight-week home-based video game program. In particular, they studied the patients' thalamus, which is a sort of "relay station" in the brain that sends sensory impulses from receptors in various parts of the body to the cerebral cortex (the part of the brain associated with higher thinking functions including language and math comprehension). Twelve patients used a collection of gaming sessions called "Dr. Kawashima's Brain Training" composed of puzzles, word memory and assorted mental challenges. The other 12 participants did not play video games. The result: Patients in the video game group showed significant increases in brain connectivity in areas involving cognition.

What other MS symptoms might video games help? "Many of our patients have problems with fine motor control and hand-eye coordination," Vollmer says. "Even though to date there are no specific studies involving MS patients, there's enough research suggesting certain video games, in general, can improve this function." For instance, a study published in the August 2016 issue of Psychological Science looked at whether playing video games benefits hand-eye coordination. During the research conducted in Hong Kong, a dot on the screen was randomly moved from left and right, while participants used a joystick to try and keep the dot in the center of the screen. The scientists discovered that those subjects who regularly played action video games proved to be more accurate than those who didn't use electronic gaming.

A different study offered similar results. This one, conducted at the University of Toronto in Canada, found that people who regularly played action video games were better able to learn new sensorimotor tasks and improve their hand-eye coordination than people who didn't play video games.

Story Source: The above story is based on materials provided by USNEWS
Note: Materials may be edited for content and length

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