Virtual Reality for Real Maladies

The immersive nature of virtual reality (VR) technology makes it valuable for use in fields including education, marketing and design, as well as its roots in games and entertainment. It offers medical professionals unique tools for teaching, including access to “first-hand” demonstrations by industry-leading specialists and the ability for personnel to familiarise themselves with a wide variety of procedures in a repetitive and corrective environment. Training with VR has even been demonstrated to reduce surgical errors.

The technology can also provide benefits when used directly by patients. Healthcare professionals are pushing the need for alternative treatments to drugs, with the average individual in Britain estimated to take about 100,000 prescribed and over-the-counter pills in their lifetime. The drive to minimise antibiotic usage has been heavily publicised, but some doctors are also hoping to identify replacements for a range of medicines including painkillers and antidepressants. A drug may have side effects or become addictive with prolonged use, and its effectiveness can diminish over multiple treatments, but VR stands to offer similar benefits with fewer negative consequences. It’s a nascent concept, but therapeutic software could become increasingly common as the price of hardware falls, and the costs are already far below the expense of keeping patients in hospital for symptoms that could potentially be managed at home.

The use of the headsets in clinical settings has been explored, examining whether the technology can help individuals in managing their pain. Therapeutic VR firm AppliedVR conducted a study where hospital patients in Los Angeles were able to choose from guided relaxation or immersive game content before, during or after procedures. Participants reported a 24 percent reduction in pain (demonstrating similar effectiveness to results observed when prescribing narcotics), and MRI scanning has been shown to reflect this.

VR has also been identified as a potential treatment for depression and anxiety. Medications to manage these conditions are among the most commonly prescribed drugs, and it’s thought that such technology-based approaches may prove more appealing to younger generations than traditional talking therapies. One trial by University College London used avatars to trigger “embodiment” as it taught the participant self-compassion. In addition, VR exposure therapy aims to specifically tackle the symptoms of phobias or post-traumatic stress, with therapists guiding sufferers through digitally recreated scenarios multiple times to aid emotional processing.

The technology can also be used to provide day-to-day stress relief. Meditative VR game Deep, for example, is controlled via a chest strap, encouraging yogic breathing techniques that have been shown to relieve stress and have cardiovascular benefits. Similar applications provide a calming visual landscape, often with accompanying sounds, music or guided meditation instructions, and can be used to maintain mental well-being.

More work needs to be done to determine the clinical effectiveness of these therapies and when they could be useful, but VR appears to be a promising alternative to a number of traditional drugs. It’s just one way that VR could help patients to see real benefits.