6 ways virtual reality is transforming healthcare

It’s tempting, sometimes, to think of virtual reality as something that’s entirely frivolous. Its main uses are for making entertainment – predominantly games – more immersive. That’s actually not the case, however: just as 3D printing is offering unexpected benefits to the medical profession, virtual reality could soon follow suit.

This week a groundbreaking study from the University of Oxford found that a VR simulation of crowded Tube trains and lifts could reduce feelings of paranoia in those who would struggle to function in similar real-world situations.

The system used a therapeutic technique that’s as old as the hills: exposure. Basically, the theory goes that people who have developed a psychological aversion to something that’s ultimately harmless should be gradually introduced to the object of their fear, ramping up the exposure until they’re able to cope without stress. That can be anything from social situations to spiders. While patients can do this themselves between therapy sessions (a social anxiety sufferer might be given the challenge of making small talk with three strangers, for example), the advantage of VR is that it allows for harder-to-simulate situations (the inside of a plane, or seeing a scary spider), and allows the therapist to be on hand to guide the patient through their experience.

It’s tempting to think that this is a brave new world of treatment, but it’s actually been around for some time. The only difference now is that with the rise of the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, the equipment is becoming affordable and well on the way to mass adoption. Firsthand, for example, has made various VR applications over the past 20 years tackling everything from arachnophobia to teaching children good oral hygiene.

Here is a list of some of the other novel uses for VR in mental health and beyond.

VR provides phantom limb pain relief

Phantom limb pain is a condition that’s not properly understood by doctors, but affects more than two-thirds of amputees. In short, they feel severe pain in the area of the limbs they’ve lost, sometimes to the degree that it disrupts sleeping or everyday functions.

Dr Max Ortiz Catalan of Chalmers University was able to markedly improve the condition for Swedish amputee Ture Johanson, who lost half of his right arm in a car accident. Johanson was connected to an augmented-reality game where real-world movements controlled onscreen actions.

“The leading theory is that the brain map of your own body changes after an amputation. This means that amputees – whether it’s a limb, breast, nose… anything – they can suffer phantom pain. What we are trying to do is potentially restore the original map, by allowing the patient to use the missing limb, and therefore get rid of the pain,” Catalan told The Local.

VR as a super-effective painkiller

As well as full immersion, virtual reality can be used to distract from ongoing pain. One example is burn victims requiring the changing of bandages. Firsthand’s SnowWorld is a simple game that distracts burn victims from the world around them. “Because pain has such a strong psychological component to it, psychological treatments can be used to counteract the pain,” SnowWorld’s co-creator Hunter Hoffman told the BBC.

The game is simple, as anything more complicated would be difficult for patients to concentrate on – understandably, given their circumstances. But it seems to genuinely work. “When I was in SnowWorld, I didn’t think about the pain at all. There was pretty much no pain – there were at some points, but the most part there was no pain,” explained one patient.

Indeed, brain scans confirm this, with Hoffman claiming a 50% reduction in brain activity when compared to those undergoing treatment without.

VR helps PTSD sufferers live with their trauma

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a form of serious anxiety triggered by flashbacks to a past traumatic event. Soldiers who have seen horrendous things on the battlefield, or survivors of assaults, for example. These triggers don’t have to come from the original situation: a former soldier’s memory of the battlefield could be triggered by a crowded street, so it can severely impact how sufferers live their lives.

By introducing PTSD sufferers to computerised versions of their trauma, researchers have seen some positive results in early studies. One such simulation – Virtual Iraq – is built on the game Full Spectrum Warrior, and allows former soldiers to relive the battlefield in a safe environment, allowing them to cope better with potential triggers in the real world.

VR creates a controlled virtual environment for alcoholics

As reported by us a year ago, a South Korean study suggests that virtual environments could be used as a key part of their therapy. For the purpose of the small study, participants were introduced to three virtual environments: the first was a relaxing area, the second involved a high-risk scenario with practically everyone drinking, and the third featured “the sights, sounds and smells of people getting sick from too much alcohol”.

Following the therapy, the researchers found participants had reduced levels of brain sensitivity to alcoholic stimuli. More research is required, though, as the study was limited to just 12 people.

VR as training for lazy eyes

This differs from the other conditions on the list by not being the result of a peer-reviewed study carried out by researchers, but James Blaha would certainly vouch for the power of VR.

A sufferer of amblyopia – or “lazy eye” – for most of his life, Blaha had difficulties with depth perception. Using the Oculus VR Development Kit, which provides screens for both eyes, Blaha has managed to train his weaker eye, and can now see things in three dimensions, despite the wisdom of the time suggesting he would be too old for it to have an impact.

Having raised $20,000 of crowdfunding, he created Vivid Vision, a game designed to help other sufferers repeat his success.

VR as social cognition training for young autistic adults

At the University of Texas, researchers have been working with young autistic adults, enabling them to practice social skills within virtual environments, such as job interviews, blind dates or meeting a new neighbour. The experience encourages participants to read social cues to recognise “the unspoken intentions behind a behaviour” or to share “an opinion in a socially acceptable way”.

“After ten sessions of the VR-SCT intervention, scores significantly increased on some measures of verbal and non-verbal recognition and theory of mind,” the paper concluded.

With VR headsets selling out faster than manufacturers can create them, the future looks bright for mass adoption, and that could well mean that an Oculus Rift will look just as natural in the doctor’s surgery as stethoscopes and needles.

READ NEXT: Virtual reality will change the way you think about violence

Image: D Coetzee used under Creative Commons

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Disclaimer: Some pages on this site may include an affiliate link. This does not effect our editorial in any way.