When it comes to a life-changing illness or injury, the healing process can seem daunting, so it’s important for your practice to leverage the latest and greatest methods of care delivery. In this two part #rtblogseries, discover how new technology is being utilized in therapy and rehabilitation, specifically for occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech therapy and applied behavioral analysis (ABA).

Occupational Therapy and Physical Therapy

Both occupational therapists (OTs) and physical therapists (PTs) are healthcare professionals who help people retain or regain function through strategic treatment plans as well as exercise. Often appearing hand-in-hand, occupational therapy and physical therapy overlap in many ways, including the specialized equipment they may need to help patients on their healthcare journey. Some of the most important hands-on tools therapists may use or recommend include gait trainers, pediatric walkers/rollators, vestibular therapy devices, motor activity centers, grab bars and more.

However, advancing technology has brought new high-tech tools to these therapy disciplines, with emerging developments on the horizon. For therapists to offer the latest treatment options to patients, staying on top of new technology breakthroughs is essential. Here are some of the top examples of how technology is being used in occupational therapy and physical therapy today.

Virtual Reality

Leveraging virtual reality (VR) as an adjunct to traditional physical and cognitive rehabilitation has become increasingly popular in occupational therapy as it is especially effective in treating those recovering from brain injuries, strokes or other neurological conditions. While the default design of VR often focuses on the functional capacity of the hands and upper extremities, the addition of specially programmed computers, artificial environments and visual devices have given occupational therapists the ability to further fine-tune patient experiences. Along with supplemental cognitive rehabilitation, VR has also proven beneficial for those who are recovering from orthopedic trauma or even patients who may struggle with certain mental health disorders such as PTSD or social anxiety.

Functional Electrical Stimulation

First developed in the 1960’s, functional electrical stimulation (FES) has become a vital therapeutic intervention that occupational therapists and physical therapists alike use to help patients regain control over muscles that may have been paralyzed or otherwise damaged due to stroke or a spinal cord injury.

FES is a technique that requires the application of electrodes over a weakened muscle. By sending an electrical current through these electrodes, the muscle is forced to contract. This process, also called functional neuromuscular stimulation, imitates how muscles typically function, with electrical signals sent down nerve endings that tell the muscles to move. 

Blood Flow Restriction Rehabilitation

Blood flow restriction rehabilitation (BFR) uses a specialized tourniquet system on an arm or leg while exercising. During treatment sessions, the BFR is intermittently inflated to personalized, specific pressure settings, which reduces blood leaving the extremity, but still allows blood flow into the muscle. As the blood pools behind the tourniquet, the muscle tissue is deprived of oxygen, promoting muscle growth with significantly less physical strain.

This approach has shown promise in patients who have residual weakness after surgery and can minimize the effects of limited extremity use, shorten rehab time as well as improve patient outcomes. Outside the context of physical therapy, this method is referred to as hypoxic training, a form of training that boasts rapid muscle growth.

Intrepid Dynamic Exoskeletal Orthosis

With the advancements made in surgery, it’s now much more common for limbs to be reconstructed after extreme injury rather than amputated. The recovery process often calls for both physical and occupational therapy intervention as well as new forms of braces or equipment to improve gait, stability and function in the lower extremities.

Created specifically to help wounded warriors with severe injuries to the lower limbs, the Intrepid Dynamic Exoskeletal Orthosis (IDEO) is a brace designed to improve functional performance after limb salvage procedures. In conjunction with the Return To Run (RTR) program, a rehabilitation plan focused on regaining not just function, but athleticism, IDEO has helped reduce delayed amputation rates, improve self-reported scores and increase validated performance outcomes.  

Force Plates

Force plates are performance therapy tools used to measure the force generated by the movement of a human body over time, which provides insight into the kinetics of functional movement. In a rehabilitation setting, an occupational or physical therapist can use force plates to establish baseline kinetic profiles, both as a tool for measuring progress and outcomes during treatment as well as a method of assessing a patient’s response to training.

Video Motion Capture Tools (Biofeedback)

Until recently, physical therapists could only use video for periodic screenings of standardized movements. With the biofeedback capabilities available today, therapists can use video motion capture tools to visualize and quantify real-time progress as a patient is performing rehabilitation exercises. This interactive technology allows for a live analysis of movement that can be modified or corrected by the patient directly, providing a significant way to restore a sense of independence after injury.

Popular Tools For Occupational Therapy

While occupational therapy has had a long-lived relationship with traditional low-tech devices like theraputty and sock aids, there are some updated technologies that are gaining popularity among therapists:

  • Smart clothes. Tags attached to clothing can track stress, breathing patterns, sleep, heart rate and activity levels. These can be especially useful in the home health industry.
  • Gaming. Gaming-based devices can be used at home or in a clinical setting to help improve arm and hand function following a stroke or injury. Also, therapists can modify game-based rehabilitation to focus on full-body as well as specific extremities. 
  • Biofeedback devices. Occupational therapists may use biofeedback devices, such as interactive computer programs, to gain insight regarding patients’ movements. Other mobile devices can measure gait speed when walking or record how patients’ heart rates coordinate with their body movements.
  • SMART home technology. By reviewing information gained through SMART home devices, such as Alexa or Google Home, an occupational therapist can gain better understanding about a patient’s living environment and assess individual activity.

Through modern advances in technology, occupational therapists and physical therapists are providing more patient-centered care than ever before. That’s why an all-in-one digital healthcare platform is important in managing both patient engagement and patient outcomes. Next week – stay tuned for part two of our “Tech In Therapy” #rtblogseries to learn more about innovative trends coming about in applied behavioral analysis (ABA) and speech therapy.