Advances in technology are continually shaping the future of medical treatment, but could devices utilising virtual reality (VR), which were once considered the realm of gamers, be the next frontier for physical rehabilitation?
Rohan O’Reilly is a movement therapist in Newcastle, New South Wales, who has been using alternative therapies involving virtual reality devices to help his clients with rehabilitation.
“It really came back to the point of listening to people’s stories who had had large-scale traumas, and their experiences of what they went through, from their initial accident through to therapy,” Mr O’Reilly said.
“For most of them it was really [boring] and quite uncomfortable and not inspiring.
“So we thought ‘We need to make this feel better’.
“Lucky for us we’re living in a time where there’s an amazing new array of technologies that are not widely known about.
“Virtual reality would be the one that’s hot at the moment, and essentially that is a game changer. It’s phenomenal what can be done with that as a platform for putting people in a state where they want to play.”
Making therapy fun
Rohan O’Reilly says clients put more effort into their therapy when it is meaningful for them. (ABC Newcastle: Robert Virtue)
Mr O’Reilly said virtual reality helped clients to exercise their bodies in non-traditional ways.
“It’s about emotions,” he said.
“If your rehabilitation just tended to be based around the fact that you had to pick up an inanimate object, which you had no real emotional connection to, repetitively … for most people, they would think ‘OK, I can do this for a little while’, but they’re quickly going to run out of steam.
“If you put someone in virtual reality with everything that reminds them of the things that they love to do, they’re essentially just going to give themselves therapy.
“We’re just simply creating an environment where they can explore their own capabilities.”
Client notices big improvements in health
Almost four years ago, Angus McConnell had an accident that changed his life.
He was riding his bicycle down a hill in Newcastle when a car turned across him.
“I hit the windscreen, bumped off down the road, and ended up with a spinal cord injury — a C7 complete quadriplegic,” Mr McConnell said.
“It hits you on and off, and still does.”
Mr McConnell went through traditional hospital rehabilitation, but was looking for other options to continue his treatment.
“As your journey goes along, you want to work out whether you’re going to ignore the parts of the body that aren’t working, or you’re going to make them move,” he said.
Mr McConnell said he had noticed big improvements in his health after the alternative therapy.
“Originally we started on building up the muscles and hopefully a nerve signal that’s coming through,” he said.
“I can feel further down into my body, with electrodes on parts of my body where the nerves come close to the skin.
“I’m standing up now with the help of electrodes, and that’s something I hadn’t thought possible two-and-a-half years ago.”
Academic says VR effective, but people should be cautious
Coralie English says virtual reality is useful for people who have some movement. (1233 ABC Newcastle: Robert Virtue)
Associate Professor Coralie English, a stroke researcher at the University of Newcastle, said people should approach alternative therapies with a degree of cautiousness.
“There is a reasonable amount of evidence for the effectiveness of virtual reality training for people after stroke,” she said.
“This sort of therapy is useful for people who’ve already got some movement. There’s certainly no evidence to suggest that if you can’t move at all, trying to move within these environments is going to result in any recovery of function.
“It needs to ensure that the person is practising what they need to practice, and that it’s based on a thorough assessment by a qualified health professional.”