Faster therapy for swallowing problems with virtual reality game

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Synchrony is virtual reality game which makes therapy fun for patients who can't swallow. (WPVI)

Food and drinks are some of life's little pleasures.

But swallowing problems can rob people of that joy and can pose serious health problems.

Now, technology based on video games is helping some regain that joy.

"Gonna put that right there," says therapist Joanna Rodman, as she attaches electrodes under the chin of America Touring.

Touring, a one-time ballroom dancer with Desi Arnaz in her native Cuba, won her battle with esophageal cancer, but the radiation and chemotherapy damaged her throat.

"I couldn't swallow - even water," says Touring.

She quickly lost weight - and strength.

"35 pounds. I couldn't stand up," she recalls.

"We really had to find us a way of helping her immediately," says Rodman, a therapist at ManorCare rehabilitation center in West Deptford.

To restore America's swallowing skills, Rodman used a high-tech tool called Synchrony.

It incorporates a virtual game, and and electrodes on the neck to measure how hard she swallows.

When America uses the correct muscles, the kangaroo on the screen hits the target.

"Go ahead, now, swallow. Good job!" says Rodman.

The movements are plotted in real time on a chart, so Rodman can tell exactly what's going on in detail.

She says it's radically different from the traditional therapy.

"We used to do a lot of exercises with facial exercises, oral exercises, tongue exercises, and making funny faces, and patients aren't always comfortable," Rodman recalls.

She believes Synchrony gets good results because the patient is more actively involved - but in a fun way.

"It allows them to actually control their progress. They're moving forward faster," she notes.

And that means getting back to regular food faster.

America did it in 6 weeks, and can now enjoy her favorite foods.

"I love cheesecake!" she says happily.

Dysphagia also occurs after strokes, or brain injuries. There are a million cases a year, and it affects speech as well as eating. Therapists hope Synchrony will help them more of them get back to more normal life.

Many ManorCare rehabilitation centers have Synchrony.

For more information, click here.

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