Virtual reality and healthcare

Virtual reality and healthcare

Virtual Reality (VR) is exactly what it sounds like: a computer simulated world that lets the user experience and interact in another world – another reality. Most people probably associate VR with computer games, but the different areas of potential use are many, especially in the healthcare space.

Phobia rehabilitation

Phobia, an irrational fear, is the most common kind of anxiety disorder; over 50 million people in the US and 10 million in the UK are thought to suffer from a phobia. Phobias are usually treated with cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) where the therapist and the patient work together to gradually expose the patient to the matter that is causing the phobia. Over time, the “difficulty level” increases and the patient learns to manage their fear.

By using VR as a tool in the treatment process, patients are exposed to the sitution causing the phobia, in a controlled, but very lifelike, environment. Other benefits with VR in phobia training, is that the difficulty level can be adjusted with more accuracy, as the therapist has full control over the computer generated situation – unlike phobia training in real life. Every step in the treatment can be both stopped and repeated which makes the solution cost effective and very precise.

University of Louisville uses VR to treat phobias like fear of flying, fear of public speaking and fear of heights. Another example is the Swedish research project VIMSE (Virtual reality Method for Spider phobia Exposure therapy), where half of the participants goes through the traditional training with a therapist and a real spider, while the other half experience the treatment with a VR tool.

Pain rehabilitation

For people with long-lasting neck pain it is very important with training where the muscles in the neck are activated. In a study, VR was used in rehabilitation of patients with neck pain, with a focus on movement control and stability. Participating patients wore VR glasses and played a game scenario with head movements. The study result showed increased agility and velocity in head movements and improved balance among the participants.

The pain rehabilitation department at Danderyd Hospital is conducting a development project where VR is used in stability training of whiplash patients with long-lasting neck pain. The design of the virtual world is promoting a calm enviroment consisting of a summer meadow, a park bench and a sky. The task for the patient is to, with small head movements, aim and place stars in the sky to create constellations. The game gives feedback directly about the patient’s performance so that a function and posture correction can be made.

Posttraumatic stress

Posttraumatic stress, PTSD, can afflict people who have been through a trauma like abuse, rape, an accident, war or a natural disaster. People with PTSD experience flashbacks from the traumatic event in combination with feelings of fear or anger. Outer sensory impressions or events that reminds of the trauma can trigger flashbacks, which is why many with PTSD try to avoid everything that reminds them about the trauma. This may in turn lead to isolation from family and friends.

CBT and exposure therapy are, similar to phobia treatment, a common treatment method of PTSD where the traumatic memories are recreated by letting the patient visit places and situations that remnds them about the trauma. By using VR, patients with PTSD can experience situations reminding about the trauma in a safe and controlled environment. PTSD is common among war veterans and using VR in exposure therapy among soldiers is not a new concept – in 1997 researchers at Georgia Tech released the first version of a virtual Vietnam scenario in VR for treatment of PTSD among Vietnam veterans.

A more recent example is Bravemind, which is a simulation of war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan and is used as VR exposure therapy of PTSD among veterans. Skip Rizzo, director of the research about medical VR and the war simulation at University of Southern California, is interviewed in an article where he describes the benefits of Bravemind and VR:

“The clinician controls everything that goes on in the simulations, they can change the time of day, the weather, the lighting, ambient sounds”

Thus, the therapist has full control over the situation and can adjust and tailor the simulation after the individual’s needs. This way, the individual can gradually experience scenarios that remind about the trauma, where the therapist has full control over the difficulty level and other aspects. The treatment can also be paused, cancelled and repeated.

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