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VIRTUAL REALITY THERAPY IN HEALTHCARE AND MEDICAL / PATIENT EDUCATION

Mya Care Blogger 01 Mar 2024
VIRTUAL REALITY THERAPY IN HEALTHCARE AND MEDICAL / PATIENT EDUCATION

Virtual reality, once relegated to science fiction, is rapidly becoming a reality in healthcare. From surgery simulations to pain management, VR transforms how we approach medical treatment.

VR therapy leverages the power of immersive environments and realistic interactions to tackle medical challenges head-on. From helping individuals with autism practice social skills in virtual cafes to guiding stroke survivors through VR obstacle courses to regain lost movement, the possibilities are as diverse as they are groundbreaking.

This blog delves into the exciting world of VR therapy, showcasing its varied applications and potential to revolutionize healthcare. It explores the usage of VR in mental health, physical rehabilitation, and medical training.

What Is Virtual Reality Therapy?

Virtual reality therapy (VRT) is a simulated treatment option utilizing virtual reality technology to devise a simulated patient experience. It can help them face their fears in a virtual forest or regain strength through VR-powered physical therapy exercises.

This technology goes beyond traditional computer screens, enabling total immersion in a virtual world. Users can interact with objects and people and experience different scenarios.

How It Works

The technology uses several components, such as a VR headset and sensors.

The headset comprises of earphones and goggles that connect to a computer. With the headset, one can see and hear the elements of a computer program as though they are a part of the simulated experience.

Some VR sets have sensors that allow the software to track body movements. The sensors help the user immerse fully in the virtual reality without being aware of their physical surroundings.

Special headsets and sensors create a powerful feeling of presence, making the experience incredibly immersive and compelling. Inside virtual reality, one can virtually access programs on their computer and servers where they can meet other people through their avatars.

However, it is difficult to "physically" navigate the simulation without the correct motion sensors[1].

Biological Effects of VR

VR therapy taps into the brain’s wiring, altering our sensory orientation within the physical world. It does this similarly to how the brain cannot discern between the experience of dreaming, intensive internal visualizations, and going about everyday activities in reality.

It can change how a person perceives themselves and how they orient within their surroundings, allowing for VR use in therapy. By exposing you to controlled virtual environments, therapists can help you overcome anxieties, manage pain, and even retrain your brain after injuries.

VR Therapy in Mental Health

Mental health problems are a growing concern in today's world. Traditional methods of therapy, such as talk therapy and medication, have been the go-to options for mental health professionals. However, with the advancement of technology, a new form of treatment has emerged - virtual reality therapy.

Alternative to Talk Therapy. Talk therapy is another term for psychotherapy. Some patients may find it challenging to open up and express their feelings in a traditional therapy setting. VRT provides a more anonymous, engaging, and interactive experience, making it a more appealing option for some patients. Many therapists have turned to VR as a therapy platform, allowing users to pay for virtual consultations.

Virtual Reality Therapy Techniques. VRT uses various techniques to help patients confront their fears and anxieties. Here are some of the most common methods used in virtual reality therapy:

  • Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy utilizes virtual reality technology to expose patients to their fears and anxieties in a controlled and safe environment. A qualified professional can tailor therapy to the patient's needs and implement it gradually.
  • Virtual Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is a therapy approach that aims to remove negative thought biases, patterns, and behaviors. Virtual exposure therapy can enhance cognitive behavioral therapy by allowing patients to navigate uncomfortable or stressful situations. This exposure enables them to address their negative thoughts head-on.[2]

VR Exposure Treatment for Anxiety Disorders. Those with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), generalized anxiety disorder, or social anxiety disorder can benefit from exposure therapy by facing their fears, triggers, and social settings in a safe virtual space.[3]

With the guidance of a therapist, those with these conditions may use VR therapies to desensitize themselves to stressful situations. Those with impaired social skills can practice navigating social settings inside VR in a controlled environment.

These virtual experiences can then translate into real-world confidence and improved social skills.

VR Therapy in Neurological Disorders

VR can stimulate the brain and improve cognitive function in conditions like dementia or Parkinson's disease. VR therapy can allow neurological disorder patients to engage in immersive cognition games, such as navigating virtual mazes, to keep their minds sharp and active.

It is known to benefit these patients by improving memory recall, attention span, ability to reason logically, and visual-spatial cognition.[4]

Dementia and Cognition. VR can create calming and familiar virtual environments that can reduce anxiety and agitation in individuals with dementia. Recreated scenarios include revisiting a favorite childhood home or walking along a peaceful beach, all from the comfort of a chair.

Using VR to reminisce lowers depression and slows cognitive decline in dementia patients, according to one study.

Mental Rehabilitation. Another study issued in the Journal of International Medical Research shows that those in recovery from a stroke or traumatic brain injury benefit from VR therapy. VR therapy improved their memory, higher-level reasoning, and ability to orient visually and spatially.

Chronic Pain. VRT can be a powerful tool for pain management. It can immerse users in tranquil virtual environments or engage them in virtual games to distract them from chronic pain. These techniques can help manage chronic pain in patients with neurological conditions.

A study uncovered that virtual reality therapy was effective in reducing pain intensity for severe burn victims. The patients entered a simulation of snow and spent time throwing snowballs. This virtual activity lowered their self-reported experiences of pain by 35-50% with medication or during physical therapy.

Virtual Reality Physical Therapy for Rehabilitation

Virtual reality therapy is not limited to mental health treatment and cognitive improvement. Its successful implementation in virtual orthopedic physical therapy allows patients to engage in virtual exercises and activities to help their recovery.

A review reveals that patients with chronic stroke, undergoing hemodialysis, experiencing spinal cord injuries, cerebral palsy at a young age, and cognitive decline witnessed notable improvements through VR-based workouts.

These exercises enhanced these patients' overall strength, balance, fitness, and functionality. They also lowered subjective fatigue, stress, and depression.

Better Adherence. Virtual reality increased patient participation in virtual physical therapy trials compared to ordinary physical therapy. In one study, this enhanced engagement helped those suffering from chronic lower back pain improve their symptoms by an average of 84.5%, which was approximately 17.1% better than the outcomes observed with routine physical therapy.

For children with physical disabilities, a review of evidence shows that VR therapy can enhance balance and prevent falls. Similar exercises can improve coordination and leg muscle strength in mentally challenged individuals due to better adherence.[5]

VR Therapy in Medical Education and Training

The exploration of improved virtual reality tech will enhance medical treatment and education. Future doctors will likely augment their training from the comfort of their homes[1] [2] .

Surgery. VR simulations can provide realistic surgical training for aspiring doctors, allowing them to practice complex procedures in a safe and controlled environment before entering the operating room. Practicing in a virtual context enhances motor skills similarly to real-life practice, without pressure or stress.

Anatomy in Action. Medical students can explore the human body like never before using VR visualizations. The technology allows students to dissect a virtual heart or peer inside a 3D brain model to understand anatomy and physiology better.

Pre-surgical Planning and Patient Education

VR can prepare patients and surgeons for surgery by simulating the procedure beforehand. This can help reduce anxiety attached to the actual surgery.[6]

For Surgeons. When coupled with 3D imaging technologies, a 3D model of the patient's body or tissue requiring surgery can be presented to a surgeon in a virtual simulation. This accessibility allows surgeons to plan complex procedures and adjust their methods based on virtual outcomes.

For Patients. With VR, patients can observe how the surgery is performed and gauge the probable outcome. Many patients find this application of VR reassuring, as it directly highlights the surgeon's competence and the procedure's benefits. For cosmetic surgery, the surgeon can offer several models to the patient in VR and give them 3D options from which to choose.

Pain Relief in Minimally Invasive Procedures. Virtual reality therapy can help reduce pain perception by distracting the patient. Several studies show that it helped lower pain, anxiety, and dissatisfaction with several minimally invasive procedures. Patients undergoing a lumbar nerve block in one trial revealed that VR enhanced the effects of anesthesia and was more effective than anesthesia alone.

The Benefits of Virtual Reality Therapy

VRT has gained popularity in recent years due to its numerous benefits. Here are some prime advantages of virtual reality therapy:

  • Highly Interactive: VR makes therapy more engaging and interactive, especially for individuals who find traditional talk therapy less effective. Improved engagement can lead to better outcomes and increased motivation to continue treatment.
  • Convenient: With VRT, patients can receive therapy from the comfort of their own homes, making it more accessible and convenient. Home VR therapy is especially beneficial for those who stay in remote regions or have mobility issues. It also eliminates the need for patients to travel to therapy sessions, saving them time and money.
  • Customizable: VRT allows therapists to create personalized and customizable treatment plans for each patient. The therapist can tailor the virtual environment to the patient's specific needs and gradually increase the level of exposure as the patient progresses in their treatment.
  • Cost-Effective Care: VR therapy can reduce healthcare costs by shortening hospital stays and improving patient treatment outcomes.

Challenges

As virtual reality technology advances and evolves, developers must overcome numerous hurdles before it can achieve widespread adoption. These hurdles encompass various aspects, including but not limited to cost and accessibility, contributing to the current limitations VR technology faces.

In virtual reality development, examining ethical implications is a top priority. Privacy concerns arise concerning personal information and the handling of private data. Anonymity in a therapeutic setting can also be problematic if the patient experiences problems and the therapist cannot physically assist them in the real world.

Data security is crucial, requiring robust measures. Misuse of VR technology is an ethical concern. Responsible utilization demands an analytical approach.

Future of VR Therapy in Healthcare

With ongoing research and development, VR therapy can prospectively revolutionize healthcare in numerous ways. Most of these developments aim to improve VR by making it lighter, more realistic, and more accessible to the public.[7]

Full Body Immersion. Developers are working on full-body suits capable of tracking motion and biometrics from the patient. This real-time tracking can allow healthcare professionals to better monitor patient progress during physical therapy and to guide the process with targeted exercises.

One such VR technology, MuscleRehab, uses wearable sensors to discern which muscles are used in a moving limb accurately. This insight paves the way for precise physical rehabilitation programs to be designed by practitioners for those in need.

Multi-Sensory Exposure. VR therapy of the future will also include multi-sensory technology that more realistically captures the experience. Adding smell, touch, and taste to a virtual simulation can improve the current level of VR exposure therapy for those with PTSD.

Conclusion

Virtual reality therapy is recasting the field of mental health treatment. With its numerous benefits and customizable treatment options, it has the potential to improve the lives of many individuals struggling with mental health conditions and physical rehabilitation. VR can also transform medical training, imaging, and surgical preparation. As technology evolves, we will witness more innovative uses of virtual reality therapy.

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Sources:

  • [1]https://omjournal.org/articleDetails.aspx?coType=1&aId=2581
  • [2] https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyt.2021.575094/full
  • [3] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33606946/
  • [4] https://www.physio-pedia.com/VR_simulations_to_help_patients_with_neurological_or_musculoskeletal_injuries
  • [5] https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fphys.2022.1053065/full
  • [6] https://medicalgiving.stanford.edu/news/virtual-reality-system-helps-surgeons-reassures-patients.html
  • [7] https://www.forbes.com/sites/bernardmarr/2023/10/13/the-10-biggest-ar-vr-and-immersive-internet-trends-in-2024/?sh=7ac61e566def

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