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Turning physical therapy into a game

November 10, 2015
by Nicole Stempak, Associate Editor
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Cosmin Mihaiu fell out of a tree when he was 7 years old. His arm and torso were in a cast for six weeks, and he couldn't extend his elbow when the cast was removed. A physician therapist gave him exercises to flex and extend his elbow 100 times a day. He didn't do it, and it took him longer to recover.

He remembered the experience while brainstorming for the Microsoft Imagine Cup innovation competition while studying computer engineering in college.

"Traditionally, a patient doing physical therapy at home is, at most, looking in the mirror," says Mihaiu, a TED fellow, told "There's no other feedback or encouragement. We thought, what if we could get people to play their way to recovery?"

Mihaiu and his team didn't win the competition, but they did go on to build Medical Interactive Recovery Assistant (MIRA), physical therapy exercises disguised as fun-to-play video games. What distinguishes MIRA from other exercised-based games is that it tracks the number of repititions, evaluates speed and range of movement and then delivers a report to the clinician.

The 10 different games offer a variety of exercises that can be tailored to each person's needs. Mihaiu and his team built software that can be played via a Kinect motion-sensing input device and a personal computer.

"Patients stay entertained and feel rewarded as they watch themselves advance from level to level, gathering points and so on," Mihaiu says. "They feel like they're making progress--and, of course, by doing the exercises they actually are."

MIRA doesn't replace the need for regular physical therapy visits, but if it encourages people to exercise, MIRA could reduce recovery time, potentially free up therapists to see more people and save time and money.

Mihaiu hopes MIRA can extend beyond orthopedic injuries to help people with Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer's disease.