Background: In recent years, efforts have been made to implement virtual reality (VR) to support the delivery of poststroke upper extremity motor rehabilitation exercises. Therefore, it is important to review and analyze the existing research evidence of its effectiveness.
Objective: Through a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials, this study examined the effectiveness of using VR-supported exercise therapy for upper extremity motor rehabilitation in patients with stroke.
Methods: This study followed the PRISMA (Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses) guidelines. The CINAHL Plus, MEDLINE, Web of Science, Embase, and Cochrane Library databases were searched on December 31, 2021. Changes in outcomes related to impairments in upper extremity functions and structures, activity limitations, and participation restrictions in life situations from baseline to after intervention, after intervention to follow-up assessment, and baseline to follow-up assessment were examined. Standardized mean differences (SMDs) were calculated using a random-effects model. Subgroup analyses were performed to determine whether the differences in treatment outcomes depended on age, stroke recovery stage, VR program type, therapy delivery format, similarities in intervention duration between study groups, intervention duration in VR groups, and trial length.
Results: A total of 42 publications representing 43 trials (aggregated sample size=1893) were analyzed. Compared with the control groups that used either conventional therapy or no therapy, the intervention groups that used VR to support exercise therapy showed significant improvements in upper extremity motor function (Fugl-Meyer Assessment-Upper Extremity; SMD 0.45, 95% CI 0.21-0.68; P<.001), range of motion (goniometer; SMD 1.01, 95% CI 0.50-1.52; P<.001), muscle strength (Manual Muscle Testing; SMD 0.79, 95% CI 0.28-1.30; P=.002), and independence in day-to-day activities (Functional Independence Measure; SMD 0.23, 95% CI 0.06-0.40; P=.01, and modified Rankin Scale; SMD 0.57, 95% CI 0.01-1.12; P=.046). Significant subgroup differences were observed in hand dexterity (Box and Block Test), spasticity (Ashworth Scale or modified Ashworth Scale), arm and hand motor ability (Wolf Motor Function Test and Manual Function Test), hand motor ability (Jebsen Hand Function Test), and quality of life (Stroke Impact Scale). There was no evidence that the benefits of VR-supported exercise therapy were maintained after the intervention ended.
Conclusions: VR-supported upper extremity exercise therapy can be effective in improving motor rehabilitation results. Our review showed that of the 12 rehabilitation outcomes examined during the course of VR-based therapy, significant improvements were detected in 2 (upper extremity motor function and range of motion), and both significant and nonsignificant improvements were observed in another 2 (muscle strength and independence in day-to-day activities), depending on the measurement tools or methods used.