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People who have suffered a stroke can boost their own recovery by playing simple card game such as 'snap', according to new research from Canada.

In recent years many stroke rehabilitation centres have used virtual reality gaming consoles such as the Nintendo Wii to help patients improve their upper body motor skills following a stroke. Patients hold a controller and have to move their limbs in certain ways to get on-screen animated characters to replicate their actions as if, for example, playing a game of tennis. 

The Canadian researchers were keen to discover if similar benefits could be gained from regularly playing more traditional games such as cards, bingo or Jenga, which all involve regular repetitive movements. They recruited 141 patients who had recently suffered a stroke and been left with some impaired movement in one or both of their arms and hands.

Around half the patients, chosen at random, were asked to complete 10 one-hour sessions of rehab using a Wii games console, while the other half spent the same time engaged in more traditional recreational activities, such as playing card games.

Assessed at the end of two weeks and again four weeks later, both groups had shown significant improvement in their motor skills. Crucially, said the researchers, both groups had fared equally well.

Throughout the research both groups also continued to receive conventional stroke rehabilitation care and support, so it is impossible to say how much of their improvement was due to this or the extra recreational rehab activities. However, other research in the field has previously shown the extra recreational therapy to be beneficial.

One of the researchers, Dr Gustavo Saposnik, said: "We all like new technology and have the tendency to think that new technology is better than old-fashioned strategies, but sometimes that's not the case. In this study we found that simple recreational activities that can be implemented anywhere can be as effective as technology."

The research has been welcomed by the UK Stroke Association, who said it was encouraging that stroke patients could aid their recovery through inexpensive and easily accessible activities which were also enjoyable to do.

The gist of the research results is that the method chosen to improve motor skills after a stroke is not that important, as long as it is intensive, repetitive and gets the hands and arms moving. Choosing a method which the individual patient enjoys is probably the most important factor.

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