Simple activities such as playing cards or repeatedly throwing a ball into a waste paper basket may be just as effective at helping people regain co-ordination following a stroke as playing sophisticated virtual reality games, new research finds.

The study is good news for the tens of thousands of Canadians who suffer a stroke each year but who do not live near a stroke rehabilitation centre and can’t access the latest technology.

The study was led by neurology researchers at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto. They wanted to know the best way to help stroke patients recover, given that “virtual reality” systems have become an increasingly popular tool used in stroke rehabilitation.

The therapy involves using computer-based programs to allow patients to practise everyday activities that cannot be practised easily within a hospital, such as throwing a pitch.

Lead author Dr. Gustavo Saposnik wanted to know whether such virtual systems were better than traditional stroke rehab activities, given that there hasn’t been much study on the matter.

The research team looked at 141 patients in four countries who had had a stroke and had developed movement problems in their arms, hands and upper bodies.

All the patients received conventional rehabilitation, but half the patients also received 10 one-hour sessions of virtual reality using the Nintendo Wii system over two weeks. The other half spent the same amount of time doing simple recreational activities such as playing cards, Jenga, or ball games.

At the end of the study, the researchers found no significant differences in how both groups fared. Patients in both groups had improved their strength, dexterity, gross motor skills, as well as their ability to perform activities of daily living.

The full results appear in the journal Lancet Neurology.

The authors say that it appears that it may not matter what kind of rehab activity is performed after a stroke as many might assume.

“Our study suggests that the type of task used in motor rehabilitation post-stroke might be less relevant, as long as it is intensive enough and task-specific,” they write.

“Simple, low-cost, and widely available recreational activities might be as effective as innovative non-immersive virtual reality technologies.”

Saposnik said in a statement that even he was surprised by the results, given that previous studies have concluded that virtual reality leisure activities are superior to traditional recreational activities for supplementing conventional rehab.

“We all like technology and have the tendency to think that new technology is better than old-fashioned strategies, but sometimes that’s not the case,” Saposnik said in the statement.

“In this study, we found that simple recreational activities that can be implemented anywhere may be as effective as technology.”