Medical professionals and patients are finding various forms of virtual reality therapy (VRT) offer effective and accessible approaches to address a range of conditions and improve patients’ health and well-being.
Virtual reality (VR) technology has been around since the 1990s and the popularity of VR in video games has quickly advanced it as a mainstream technology. Investments in the VR gaming industry have made VR technology more affordable, easier to use and portable, all of which are advantageous for health care applications.
The global market for VR applications in health care is expected to reach $3.8 billion by 2020. VR is viewed as a safe, convenient and accessible way for patients to quickly achieve behavioral changes, increase physical activity and restore functions.
Some of the VRT applications now being used with patients include:
- Cognitive rehabilitation – Patients with brain injuries from trauma or illness, such as strokes or Parkinson’s disease, can practice everyday physical activities in virtual reality settings at their own speed, allowing them to rebuild neural connections and gain ease and confidence. Doctors and therapists can use VR to assess patients as they perform real-world tasks and identify areas of reduced brain functioning.
- Pain management – Scientists have found patients experience less pain when immersed in a VR experience. The technology also helps patients better tolerate painful medical procedures. In addition, doctors have found VRT beneficial for amputees who often have phantom pain in their missing limbs.
- Trauma and phobias – VRT is being used for exposure therapy to help patients with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Exposure therapy is often used with soldiers and other patients who have experienced hostile or traumatic events. Phobias are often treated through graded-exposure therapy to gradually help patients deal with the source of their phobias. VRT allows the therapist to adjust the virtual experience to the patient’s pace and needs.
- Physical therapy – VRT can be used to track patient movements while they perform therapy exercises, ensuring exercises are performed properly for the greatest benefit. Patients often are more engaged doing activities in a virtual environment. Therapists can adjust VR-based exercises to help patients gain confidence, speed and dexterity.
- Medical training – VR is increasingly being used to train doctors, nurses and other health care professionals in routine procedures and new technologies in a safe, realistic environment. It is used for learning anatomy, practicing operational procedures and teaching infection control. With VR, medical scenarios can be experienced and repeated easily in the classroom, allowing medical students to gain immediate feedback and make corrective actions.
 “Bringing virtual reality to medical treatment,” by Andrea K. McDaniels, The Baltimore Sun, May 15, 2017. Available at: http://www.baltimoresun.com/health/maryland-health/bs-hs-virtual-reality-medicine-20170508-story.html
 “Five ways virtual reality is improving healthcare,” by Wendy Powell, University of Portsmouth, The Conversation, June 21, 2017. Available at: https://theconversation.com/five-ways-virtual-reality-is-improving-healthcare-79523?sa=pg2&sq=Virtual+reality++improving+healthcare&sr=1
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