Think VR is all about gaming? Think again. Virtual reality has applications across the board and now this immersive technology is revolutionizing the healthcare industry. Everyone from psychologists and surgeons to doctors and dentists are exploring ways in which virtual reality can be helpful in facilitating patient care and treatment. Thus far the results have been nothing short of stunning and show promise across multiple applications.
One area where virtual reality has shown the biggest promise and research-backed success has been in the arena of pain management. And nowhere is that impact quite as profound and heart-warming as when applied to pediatric patients suffering from severe burn injuries. While morphine can typically keep pain under control when patients are lying still in bed, there is no dosage of narcotics that can tame the excruciating pain burn victims experience during daily wound care sessions.
Enter virtual reality.
Shriners Hospital for Children in Galveston, Texas is one of several hospitals currently using the VR experience SnowWorld to help children in recovery. Created by Dr. Hunter Hoffman of the University of Washington, SnowWorld was designed to distract patients from pain during burn care by immersing them in a snowy landscape where they are tasked with throwing snowballs at snowmen, penguins and woolly mammoths.
According to Dr. Hoffman’s research, patients who play SnowWorld during wound treatments report up to 50 percent less pain than similar patients who don’t. Other research suggests that patients engaging in the snow-capped virtual reality actually show changes in the brain that indicate they’re feeling less pain. This is because VR has an analgesic effect, lessening the severity of pain the patient experiences since the parts of the brain that are linked to pain – among them the somatosensory cortex and the insula – are less active when a patient is immersed in virtual reality.
Equally astounding, a surgeon out of Mexico City has been using virtual reality and nothing more than a local anesthetic for procedures and surgeries that would normally require powerful (and costly) painkillers and sedatives. With more than 350 successful surgeries under his belt, there’s evidence to suggest the technique is working. Dr. Luis Mosso Vasquez believes that if more doctors opt to use VR technology in lieu of costly drugs, not only will Mexican hospitals save money, but that they will also see fewer patient complications and speedier recovery times.
Phantom Limb Pain
Millions of people in the U.S. are currently living with amputations. Of those, a significant number live with or are likely to experience phantom limb pain. The syndrome has proven difficult to treat and drug trials have failed to be effective. Thankfully, researchers have found virtual reality as a promising treatment to help amputees better cope with the pain.
Through an immersive VR experience wherein the person’s motions are tracked and used to generate a virtual limb, the patient is not only able to perceive the missing limb, but also to control it by participating in a simple batting practice game. In a study on the effectiveness of this VR approach, a significant number of participants reported reduced pain and one participant even reported regaining some control over a residual limb that has been paralyzed.
In addition to these acute pain treatment applications, doctors are beginning to experiment with VR as a means to treat chronic pain, a promising first step in addressing America’s much talked about opioid crisis. As reported in a recent Quartz article, patients suffering from chronic pain participating in two small clinical trials, “reported that their pain fell by 60 to 75 percent (compared to the baseline) during their VR session, and by 30 to 50 percent immediately afterwards. The best morphine does is 30 percent.”
While most medical research in virtual reality applications for improved patient care has seemingly focused on pain management, the technology shows promise in other areas as well.
Stress and Anxiety Disorders
Ever since researchers at Georgia Tech first pioneered the use of virtual reality as an effective therapy for veterans who had undergone previous unsuccessful treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder in 1997, VR has continued to evolve as one of the most effective means to help patients from all walks of life suffering from PTSD. In fact, one in three people who experience a traumatic event – be it a car accident, robbery, natural disaster or battlefield incident – will suffer from PTSD, a condition best treated through exposure therapy. Virtual reality can recreate the situation in which the traumatic event occurred, allowing the patient to “re-experience” and process it while in a safe space.
In addition to management for stress disorders, psychologists have also explored the application of virtual reality in treating anxiety disorders. The treatment has proved especially effective to help people address fears like acrophobia, arachnophobia and claustrophobia. Given that over 19 million people in the U.S. are plagued by specific phobias, the effectiveness of virtual reality could pave the way for a better alternative to the use of medications.
Virtual reality has also shown to advance recovery during physical therapy, as creating a virtual “physical” world can allow patients to practice re-learning functional tasks with increasing degrees of complexity, or make monotonous exercise more interesting. Stroke patients in particular have demonstrated marked improvements in arm and hand movement after four weeks of VR rehab as opposed to cohorts who undertook traditional rehab therapy.
For previously ambulatory patients suddenly without the use of their legs, not only are they faced with the hurdles of emotional acceptance, they also have the physical challenges of learning to “drive” a wheelchair to overcome. VR is being explored as a means to help ease that transition. A team of designers at Fjord has come up with a virtual, urban environment that is designed to help first-time wheelchair users safely practice steering and navigating obstacles before having to tackle those new-found challenges in the real world.
These applications are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to ways in which virtual reality can revolutionize the healthcare industry as we know it today. And as the technology becomes more affordable and widely accessible, patients all over the world will have increasing access to a broad spectrum of non-invasive, non-narcotic treatment options.