13 Medical Conditions That Are Being Treated With Video Games

Play two games of Tetris and call me in the morning: From lazy eye to Type 1 Diabetes, there's probably a video game for what ails ya.

Dice

Video games have long been considered for entertainment purposes only. They’re usually viewed (by non-gamers, at least) as nothing more than a way to kill time or something played only by kids or antisocial adults. Turns out, though, that video games are increasingly being used as effective ways to treat or manage a wide variety of illnesses, diseases or other medical conditions. Researchers across the globe are finding evidence that people suffering from conditions ranging from traumatic brain injuries to fear of public speaking can get some relief through video games. Here are 13 medical conditions for which video games are - or may soon be - prescribed as part of a treatment plan.

Tetris

Lazy-eye

Condition: Lazy-eye, or amblyopia, is a condition most often detected in children, where the signals from one eye don’t make it to the brain or don’t make it to the brain as clearly as those from the other eye, for a number of different reasons.

Traditional treatment: If detected early, treatment options include surgery, corrective lenses, eye drops or putting a patch on the strong eye to strengthen the lazy one.

How gaming can help: Tetris, one of the most popular video games of all time, has been found to retrain the brain and improve the vision in the weak eye by making the two eyes cooperate.

Wii Balance Board
ITworld/Phil Johnson

Parkinson’s Disease

Condition: A disorder of the central nervous system, Parkinson’s disease is the result of the death of dopamine-generating cells in the brain. Usually first diagnosed in adults over 50, it can lead to a progressive loss of motor skills, dementia and shortened life expectancy.

Traditional treatment: While there is no cure for Parkinson’s, symptoms can be managed through medication to mimic dopamine or prevent its breakdown, exercise and, sometimes, surgery.

How gaming can help: Game play using a Wii Balance Board, along with traditional exercise such as walking and cycling, has been found to help improve balance in Parkinson’s patients, reducing the risk of falls.

The Magi and the Sleeping Star

Type 1 Diabetes

Condition: Type 1 Diabetes (T1D) is an autoimmune disorder in which insulin-producing cells in the pancreas are destroyed. Without insulin to regulate the amount of blood sugar, a variety of complications such as heart disease, kidney damage and amputation can result.

Traditional treatment: There is no cure for T1D, but it can be managed through insulin injections, frequent checking of blood sugar levels and proper diet and exercise.

How gaming can help: Video games that can teach children good habits to help learn how to manage T1D have been found to be beneficial. Game designers are now creating games that are designed to be educational about T1D and fun.

Call of Duty
REUTERS/David McNee (Reuters)

Dyslexia

ConditionDyslexia is a learning disorder characterized by difficulties in word recognition and reading. It’s a very common condition that can lead to difficulty with a variety of things such as spelling, writing and following instructions.

Traditional treatment: Treatment usually involves education, therapy and assistive technologies.  These can include instruction by reading specialists, specially tailored fonts and screen readers.

How gaming can help: Recent studies have found playing action-filled video games can be beneficial to kids with dyslexia. By requiring kids to constantly focus and then quickly shift their attention, these games can help improve visual attention leading to improved reading speed and accuracy.

Lungtropolis

Asthma

Condition: Asthma is a chronic disease where the airways in the lungs become constricted, causing coughing, wheezing and difficulty in breathing. In severe cases it can be life threatening. It currently affects about 25 million Americans.

Traditional treatment: Attacks can be lessened by learning to recognize and avoid triggers. Medication can be used to treat symptoms in the short term and to better manage them in the long run, such as through inhaled corticosteroids and beta agonists.

How gaming can help: Since asthma is often diagnosed during childhood, video games such as the American Lung Association’s Lungtropolis, have been found to help both children and parents to better manage the disease and deal with episodes.

PLaying Xbox Kinect boxing

Autism

Condition: Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) covers a wide range of neurodevelopmental disorders that can lead to problems with communication, social interactions and behavior.

Traditional treatment: ASD conditions, while not curable, can be treated with a variety of behavioral interventions and therapies. Specific symptoms such as depression, anxiety and seizures can also be treated with medication.

How gaming can help: Some therapists have found that playing video games with others, particularly those with simple rules that use motion capture technology (particularly the Xbox Kinect, not requiring fine motor skills), can help people on the Autism spectrum engage with others and that virtual reality environments, in general, may aid with social interaction.

Canyon Adventure
Ohio State University

Stroke

Condition: A stroke occurs when blood flow to the brain is stopped due to a blood clot or ruptured blood vessel. It can cause death, as well as a number of long-term physical problems such as paralysis, vision loss and speech problems.

Traditional treatment: Patients who survive a stroke can undergo a variety of physical and occupational therapies to deal with the resulting conditions.

How gaming can help: Ohio State University researchers have developed a video game called Canyon Adventure which uses Xbox Kinect to encourage patients to perform repetitive motions with the affected limb, which has been found to be as effective - and much more affordable and feasible - than traditional movement therapy.

Asteroids

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder

Condition: Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder, commonly diagnosed in children, that can make it difficult to focus, reduce impulse control and cause restlessness and hyperactivity.

Traditional treatment: Management of ADHD normally includes medication like Ritalin and Adderall, psychotherapy and parental training.

How gaming can help: Researchers in Finland are using video games with headsets that measure brain activity to try and retrain the brains of ADHD patients. Using simple games similar to Asteroids, Pong and Angry Birds, the researchers are seeing promising results by tailoring game play to stimulate certain parts of the brain. The hope is that gaming can help reduce the dependence on costly medications that often have unpleasant side effects.

Xbox 360 Skateboarding

Traumatic Brain Injury

Condition: Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) is a condition in which an injury to the brain is caused by a blow to head or body. It covers a wide range of injuries from mild to severe which lead to a host of physical and psychological problems

Traditional treatment: Treatments and rehabilitation can include drugs such as anti-seizure medication, surgery to repair damage and many kinds of therapy (physical, occupational, speech).

How gaming can help: Researchers from Central Michigan University found that patients with TBI who followed a program of Xbox/Kinect-based exercises and games, such as skateboarding, significantly improved balance, coordination and stability. Gaming was found to provide as much benefit as traditional therapy, but at reduced cost.

Super Mario 64

Mental Illness

Condition: Mental illness encompasses a wide range of disorders, including anxiety, schizophrenia, addiction, and obsessive-compulsiveness, which can cause all sorts of emotional, behavioral and even physical problems.

Traditional treatment: Treatments normally include psychotherapy and, often, medication such as antidepressants and mood-stabilizers.

How gaming can help: Researchers in Germany have recently found that video games such as Super Mario 64 can actually lead to a volumetric increase in the areas of the brain that control memory formation, strategic planning and fine motor skills, which they theorize could help those with mental illness. Others have begun to develop video games around the experience of living with mental illness.

Xbox Kinect game for treating chronic pain

Complex Regional Pain Syndrome

Condition: Considered one of the most painful long term conditions, Complex Regional Pain Syndrome is a nervous system disorder. It affects arms and legs and can lead to chronic pain, swelling, sensitivity and changes in the skin.

Traditional treatment: Treatment in the early stages sometimes leads to remission. This includes physical and psychological therapies as well as medications such as pain relievers, antidepressants and nerve-blockers.

How gaming can help: Custom video games have been developed for the Xbox Kinect to help to distract patients from the pain, increase strength and range of motion and gather detailed data on patients movements. These data can then be used to track progress and tailor therapy.

Full Spectrum Warrior

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

ConditionPost-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder that can develop after a person is involved with a traumatic event. The debilitating flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety that characterize PTSD can take days, weeks or even months to develop.

Traditional treatment: While treatment soon after the triggering event can help prevent PTSD, it can later be managed through various type of therapy and medication, such as antipsychotics and antidepressants.

How gaming can help: 3D virtual reality systems (based on games like Full Spectrum Warrior) are being used to provide exposure therapy to soldiers with PTSD returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Exposing them to lifelike simulations of the triggering events can help patients to move past them.

Virtual reality goggles

Glossophobia

Condition: Glossophobia, better known as the fear of public speaking, which can affect the vast majority of people to some degree. It can lead to intense anxiety or panic when speaking to groups and, in more severe cases, physical systems such as nausea.

Traditional treatment: Mild forms forms can be treated through practice, deep breathing and support. More severe symptoms can be treated with medication such as beta blockers.

How gaming can help: Virtual reality exposure therapy is being used by some therapists to treat glossophobiacs by simulating public speaking environments. By modifying the response of the simulated audience, therapists help patients to face and overcome this common fear.