By Dr Wendy Powell, senior member of the IEEE and reader in virtual reality at the University of Portsmouth
Virtual Reality treatments may sound like something out of science fiction storyline, but they might soon be part of our regular healthcare.
Researchers around the world have been exploring the possibilities for many years, but it is only now, as consumer-level VR is starting to take off, that it has really become feasible to use the technology to improve our health.
We’ve known for some time that being in VR can have an effect on our minds and bodies, but we are often more aware of the negative effects such as nausea, sickness and headaches. While these are very real issues, they become less and less prominent as the technology improves, and what interests me is the other ways in which VR can change our perception and behaviour.
Let’s take the concept of pain. Generally, we feel pain in response to something going wrong – a nasty cut, a burn, or perhaps inflammation in our joints. The damaged tissues send a signal to the brain, and it is here that we ‘decide’ whether we are feeling pain or not, and respond appropriately.
Most of us know that pain doesn’t feel so bad if we can distract ourselves (rubbing it to give a different sensation, playing a fun game, or being in the middle of intense physical activity), so it makes sense that VR can work as a distraction to reduce our awareness of pain. In fact, this effect is so powerful that VR is already been used in several settings to help manage severe pain (e.g. vrpain.com) or even as ongoing treatment for chronic pain (e.g. cognifisense.com).
But it’s not just distraction from pain – VR can go further, changing our perception of our bodies in order to manage more complex pain. For example, we’re working with amputees who suffer from something called ‘phantom pain’, which is pain perceived to be coming from the missing limb, which can be so severe that even opioid drugs can’t control it. Seeing, and using, a virtual reality representation of the missing limb seems to help the brain to reprocess the sensations, and reduce the phantom pain. There is work still to do, but some early results are looking promising.
Another area which is growing rapidly is ‘virtual rehabilitation’, where patients can interact in VR in carefully designed ‘games’ in order to carry out rehabilitation tasks and exercises. Tracking and feedback in real time allows patients to work at their own pace, being guided either by a remote therapist, or by the VR application itself. Although the early work in this area was mainly carried out in specialised centres (e.g. the CAREN system), there is a growing interest in consumer-level virtual rehabilitation.
It’s important to make sure that the tracking and feedback retains the quality and fidelity for optimum outcomes, but there are a number of us working on translating this high-end tech into clinically validated affordable treatments, and it won’t be long before a prescription game could replace the paper exercise sheet that many people currently get sent home with.
Of course, these are just a couple of examples of the large (and growing) range of ways in which VR is starting to change our healthcare practices. It will be interesting to see where we go next.