From Treatment to Training: 5 Uses of Virtual Reality in Healthcare

The advances in virtual reality could open up a whole new world of therapeutic options for patients
The advances in virtual reality could open up a whole new world of therapeutic options for patients

Virtual reality is much more than just a new form of entertainment, it is increasingly being used in a wide range of medical applications, from treatments to training. Here are a few of them.

1. Pain management

There is good scientific evidence that virtual reality (VR) can help relieve pain. The parts of the brain that are linked to pain – the somatosensory cortex and the insula – are less active when a patient is immersed in virtual reality. In some instances, it can even help people tolerate medical procedures that are usually very painful.

Other studies have shown that amputees can benefit from VR therapy. Amputees often feel severe pain in their missing limb, which can be hard to treat with conventional methods, and often doesn't respond well to strong painkillers like codeine and morphine. However, a technique called “virtual mirror therapy”, which involves putting on a VR headset and controlling a virtual version of the absent limb seems to help some patients cope better with this “phantom pain”.

2. Physical therapy

VR can be used to track body movements, allowing patients to use the movements of their therapy exercises as interactions in a VR game. For example, they may need to lift an arm above their head in order to catch a virtual ball.

It's more fun doing exercises in virtual reality than it is in a gym, so people are more motivated to exercise. It can help in other ways too. For example, we found that for patients who are anxious about walking, we can control their virtual environment so that it looks as though they are moving much slower than they actually are. When we do this, they naturally speed up their walking, but they don't realise they are doing it and so it isn't associated with pain or anxiety.

Studying how people perceive and interact with VR systems helps us design better rehabilitation applications.

Virtual reality can be used in physical therapy. Wendy Powell, author approved.