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Virtual Reality Healthcare Applications

Virtual reality is used as a powerful tool in preparing surgical operations, teaching medical school students to perform operations, relieving chronic pain, helping patients recover from phobias, ptsd symptoms and memory loss as well as assisting those who suffer from bipolar and other mental disorders.
Virtual Reality Healthcare Applications

Virtual reality healthcare applications

Upon hearing the words “Virtual Reality” many people’s first associations will most likely revolve around entertainment. If you happen to be more knowledgeable about the topic, you may have heard about VR fitness and gaming [links to Vrio]. But the technology has much more to offer beyond those solutions. 

Virtual reality healthcare applications are being developed by interdisciplinary teams in laboratories and clinicians around the globe. Major advancements are made thanks to VR in the domains of surgery training, pain relief, treatment of phobias as well as PTSD symptoms.

SURGERY

Virtual reality allows surgeons to have a more comprehensive perspective on the operations they are about to perform. In one example, dr. Redmond Burke at the Nicklaus Children’s Hospital in Miami, managed to plan complicated heart surgery thanks to a simple Google Cardboard VR headset. The operation was successful, and the doctor attributed his success to the possibility offered by virtual reality imaging.

Systems have been developed which combine images from MRI and CT scans as well as angiograms to present 3-D models of areas of the body that are about to undergo surgical interventions. This helps the doctors who, despite having vast knowledge and experience in performing the procedures, greatly appreciate the new possibilities offered to them. 

The combined imaging allows for a better understanding of a particular person’s condition. Instead of preparing to operate on a generic organ, doctors are given insight into the shape and functioning of the organ of an individual they will be dealing with in the operating theater. This translates into greater precision and lower health risks for patients.

An additional and no less important benefit of this application of VR in medicine is the possibility of explaining procedures to patients. Providing detailed illustrations in the form of 3-D imagery is a power tool for making regular people, usually with no medical background, understand what they are going through. This understanding can then make patients follow to their physician’s guidelines more accurately and thus improve the road to recovery.

SURGERY TRAINING

A young surgeon is required to learn how to carry out operations on patients without causing them any unnecessary damage or putting their lives at risk. Most training takes place via future doctors participating in surgical operations carried out by their older and more experienced peers. Only gradually are they allowed to operate on their own, and not before they go through a sufficient number of dissected cadavers.

This, of course, constitutes major setback for young doctors not being able to advance their knowledge and their careers. Here, we come across two vital Virtual Reality healthcare applications. Firstly, VR allows more and more students to practice their craft without the risk of causing trauma to their prospective patients by performing surgery in the safe space of the virtual operating theater.

Secondly, an experienced surgeon is able to teach thousands of students aspiring to the profession by making them join in his experience through the immersive present-day VR technology.

This exactly has been the case of professor Shafi Ahmed, who in 2016 conducted a cancer operation using a 360-degree camera allowing students around the world to follow his moves closely from remote locations. In the end over thirteen thousand people witnessed the details of the procedure.

This is all the more impressive since there exist operations which are only rarely performed and thus observed and learnt. 

PAIN RELIEF

This may come as a surprise, but today’s medical treatments of chronic pain also include therapies using VR technology. According to a growing group of scientific studies, immersion in the world of Virtual Reality does bring soothing effects to those suffering from chronic pain.

This is most likely mainly due to the ability of VR to turn the patient’s attention away from their condition. For this very reason, virtual reality has also been used to reduce the stress and the pain accompanying certain medical procedures. 

Another major Virtual Reality healthcare application is that for phantom limb syndrome. Phantom limb syndrome is a condition experienced by those who had to undergo amputations of one of the limbs. The brain cognitively maps the non-existent limb as if it still existed which often causes patients acute pain.

Just like the mirror box invented by the neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran, experiences in Virtual Reality, even as mundane as simple daily actions, allow patients to reconnect with their missing limb and thus remove the painful state.

The success rates for this application are very high since on average patients reported a 40% reduction of pain after no more than 10 minutes of being immersed in VR.

PRESCRIPTION DRUG EPIDEMIC

The problem is a serious one and numerous efforts have been made to reverse the epidemic.

As virtual reality has been known to reduce pain, scientists decided to verify whether this virtual reality healthcare application could yield positive results also in the context of chronic pain patients. 

After participating in 5-minute sessions of gameplay involving a rainbow trout cannon and a giant otter 33% of them experienced less pain by the end of the session, whereas during the game pain reduction was at 66%. Morphine, a popular pain medication, is estimated to bring a pain soothing effect of about 30%.

Similar studies from 2007 looked at burn patients who reported a 20% reduction of pain and over one third less time spend thinking about the pain they were experiencing.

Fighting a nationwide epidemic surely requires more comprehensive tools than just the VR headset. However, with the knowledge that scientists and public health professionals possess about the pain relief effects of VR they may now turn their efforts into implementing it into policies. This way new tools with proven effectiveness as pain-mitigating factors may be put in place.

PHYSICAL MEDICINE AND REHABILITATION

Virtual Reality has also proven to be beneficial for patients recovering from a stroke. As they need to move their hands and legs in order to recover, as well as talk as much as possible, VR has been the perfect tool to stimulate their motivation to train and speed up recovery. Thanks to engaging games and apps available for VR headsets, post-stroke patients are able to train to regain some of their basic life skills even without the supervision of a therapist. VR also makes the often long time of recovery much more entertaining.

Another important aspect of this application of virtual reality technology is the possibility for doctors and other medical professionals to assess the current state of patients’ cognitive abilities and whether they are progressing or not. This is doubtless a valuable piece of knowledge for anyone trying to assist others in recovery from such a serious condition.

PHOBIAS AND PTSD

The modern type of evidence-based solution for people suffering from phobias is the exposure therapy developed by cognitive-behavioural therapy specialists. Patients experiencing fear at the sight of particular animals or when put in certain social situations are given the opportunity to confront their limitations in a safe and controlled environment with the help of a mental health professional.

This tool accompanying already established forms of cognitive-behavioral therapy can greatly enhance its effects. It makes people overcome their fears and live better lives.

A similar effect has been observed for people suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, especially military veterans returning home from war zones.

Essentially, patients are being put back into situations similar to those they experienced as traumatic and thanks to this are allowed to speak and symbolically capture what was most distressing about their war-time experiences.

MEMORY LOSS

Virtual reality is also being applied to combatting one of the main symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease—memory loss. Neuroscientist Nanthia Suthana has designed a whole VR-laboratory to test the positive effects of VR-based immersion programs to help patients with deteriorating memory capacities. While in the virtual reality, patients’ brains are scanned to reveal patterns that could potentially produce new therapies for this neurodegenerative disease.

BIPOLAR DISORDER

The bipolar disorder is a serious mental condition in which patients suffering from it experience recurrent bouts of depression and mania. It still remains a considerable challenge to the medical world. Main forms of its treatments today involve pharmacotherapy and psychotherapy, but new way of assisting patients are being investigated.

Some scientists are testing the potential of VR-based simulations to monitor how patients manifesting bipolar symptoms might react in stressful or unexpected situations and events. 

Others are looking into possibilities of using virtual reality with patients suffering from forms of schizophrenia or paranoia. Virtual reality allows psychiatrists and psychologists to uncover the main triggering factors for their patients’ negative reactions. With this knowledge, they are then able to assist their patients by providing guidance on how to handle certain situations in actual life.

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About the author
Tolek

Tomek

Fitness gaming technologies that gamify fitness workouts are driving new types of members to gyms and clubs and immersive gaming elements keep them returning.

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