Virtual Reality Series: Using Simulations to Achieve Real-Life Benefits in Healthcare Part 3

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Therapeutic Uses of VR

Virtual reality has expanded the options for therapy through creating simulations that help patients overcome physical and mental ailments, making it easier for people to find methods of therapy that work with their condition and lifestyle. This last part of the Virtual Reality in Healthcare series will explore the types of VR found in this important healthcare field. Revisit part 1 in the series Introduction to Virtual Reality in Healthcare and part 2 Uses of VR in Medical Procedures and Education.

Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation

Like surgery, using VR in physical rehabilitation was first explored in the 1990s as a potential way to bring complex aspects of the real world into a controlled laboratory environment. An example of this is using a virtual soccer game setting to train a particular limb by only allowing an arm or a leg to be shown in the virtual environment, rather than their whole body. The benefits of using VR for rehabilitation are numerous, ranging from allowing a patient to be in a safe, monitored environment to using that virtual space to motivate the individual and provide feedback without relying on constant physical trainers. Using technology like haptic devices to add a virtual sensation of touch can encourage physical growth in real-life as well.

VR can also serve as an effective painkiller that can either take the place of or be paired with pharmaceutical medicines to reduce patient pain. A psychological phenomenon called the Gate Control Theory notes that pain perception can be altered by factors like the amount of attention an individual pays to the pain they are facing. Therefore, VR has been used as a strategy to distract patients facing acute or chronic pain by having them play games or undergo virtual hypnosis. Distracting a patient through immersing them into a virtual world is directly correlated with lower levels of pain, particularly for patients suffering from burn injuries. For example, research involving children with burn wounds found that when they wore Oculus Rift VR glasses, they reported lower levels of pain.

Emotional and Exposure Therapy

Exposure therapy has long been used to combat certain psychiatric disorders, such as anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder. In this treatment method, an individual is exposed to a stimulus that invokes anxiety in a safe environment to get rid of the fear. VR exposure therapy (VRET) was created and studied by individuals like Emory University professor Dr. Barbara Rothbaum and Georgia Institute of Technology professor Dr. Larry Hodges. This treatment relies on exposure therapy principles and creates a virtual environment in which a virtual therapist exposes a patient to troubling stimuli. VRET has experienced positive reception because it is more convenient than in-person therapy and does not take place in real life. Research indicates VRET is as effective as traditional exposure therapy and may be particularly useful in treating PTSD due to increased patient participation. VR systems like Floreo have been designed to help children with autism learn social skills through visual, virtual activities like real-world simulations or imitation games.

The Future of VR in Healthcare

Throughout this series, we have seen how virtual reality has provided new ways to help patients, doctors, students, and healthcare workers engage and communicate with each other through immersive training and techniques. As VR usage becomes more normalized and new improvements and uses are discovered in all facets of healthcare, it is certain that VR technology will become more prevalent in hospitals, doctor’s offices, classrooms, and the home. Although the situations and interactions experienced in VR are not physically real, they will continue to provide tangible benefits that change lives in the present and future.