Virtual Reality Changing Rehab

Attend the VR/AR Global Summit Nov 1-2 in Vancouver to learn more about VR/AR in Healthcare!

By Eran Orr of XR Health

There is an old joke in the medical world about minor surgery—it is only minor if it’s being done on someone else. The same thought can also be applied to rehab.

It is generally positive to hear that someone is in physical rehab (which, of course, is short for rehabilitation). It conjures up the notion that they are on the mend and working towards a full recovery from whatever condition that ails him or her. But we sometimes forget the real drudgery that rehab entails. It can be tedious and painful to manage injury and promote recovery.

It can involve infrared radiation, laser therapy, massage, and manual resistance training. It can involve physicality; swimming, use of chairs, exercise balls and even stairs. And it can involve utilizing intricate equipment-- electrical devices, heat, ultrasound or even stimulating the patient’s body manually using body contact.

But now, it can also involve Virtual Reality (VR) technology which, at its most basic, provides the opportunity to incorporate encouragement and fun into the rehabilitation process. For example, with the use of a VR headset, a virtual environment is created to help patients suffering from pain and injury. Patients exercising their lower limbs on a treadmill can find themselves experiencing a walk in the park or countryside.

VR has been used successfully to treat stroke victims, walking disorders and back pain. A study conducted in 2015, featuring 15 trials with 341 participants, shows that VR actually helped patients regain mobility after experiencing a stroke. Some of the stroke victims underwent only traditional rehabilitation. Others underwent rehabilitation augmented with VR experiences, either shown videos through a VR headset or placed in “simulated settings” while performing a basic exercise like walking. Researchers concluded the data showed that VR created a statistically significant improvement in “walking speed, balance, and mobility,” the metrics used to determine whether a patient was recovering efficiently.

Alas, naturally, it follows that rehab “assignments” can be turned into a video game-like experience through the use of VR headsets. This is happening because we are learning that those folks aged 50 or over are becoming more accepting of video and computer gaming. Technology doesn’t freak seniors out perhaps like it once did. So it is becoming easier to sell them on the use of VR and its close relative, Augmented Reality (AR), for their rehab efforts.

Why is this important? As an example, for those with limited mobility, practicing walking skills can get boring pretty quickly. Adding the elements of “keeping score” and/or “competition” has proven to help patients engage in their exercises and treatments. The experience generally becomes more dynamic and enjoyable. VR has been shown to spike a user’s motivation. This motivation improves a patient’s motor learning and coordination skills when doing physical therapy. Patients are more likely to put in a greater effort. And, perhaps most importantly, VR allows physicians to stimulate a patient’s brain, as well as their body. Being able to see an “avatar” that depicts the movement of patients (while they are moving) helps stimulate the motor cortex in the brain that produces the movement. And this “observation loop” activates the brain regions damaged by a stroke.

Pain management/reduction is another area where VR therapy is changing attitudes and may even someday reduce the reliance on painkillers to help people get by. New evidence shows VR can be used to help people their brain from processing pain. Studies have discovered that the parts of the brain linked to pain are much less active when a patient is immersed in virtual reality. It becomes a coping mechanism for the patient with the pain and, eventually, helps overcome it. The end result of pain reduction is a faster recovery process, thus shortening the length of a patient’s stay in the hospital, which in turn lowers healthcare costs.

From a futuristic standpoint, the therapeutic and rehabilitative potential of VR will be demonstrated by what’s known as computer assisted rehabilitation environment or CAREN. Down under, in Australia, engineers are developing “virtual” environments such as city streets in order to help researchers calculate the motion of a person’s limbs while walking along the streets, mimicking a real situation thus creating an appropriate response to it. CAREN is has a particular application in the world of sports, with in-depth studies taking place in muscle and joint function in the human body and how diseases or injury affect motor performance. CAREN can accurately evaluate how people generate joint motion pre- and post-operatively. It is possible now to look at how a joint replacement is affecting a person’s ability to move a joint after surgery, or how a stroke patient’s balance and fall risk is affected by rehabilitation.

VR is a major part of all of these are all technological advances leading to concrete improvements in the medical treatment and management of diseases and conditions that were previously thought to be unmanageable. Physical therapy and rehab are very important health restorative procedures and there are many more discoveries to be made utilizing VR. Used either in isolation or in combination with other treatment procedures, VR will continue to help manage many of the injuries and conditions that befall human beings. Even better, as VR technology keeps advancing, physical therapy and rehab will become a more engaging, fun and thrilling experience.

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Attend the VR/AR Global Summit Nov 1-2 in Vancouver to learn more about VR/AR in Healthcare!