Virtual Reality Headsets and Medicine: An Unlikely Combination

Christina Lo

Future Possible Applications of Virtual Reality in Medicine
Exposure Therapy Helps patients deal with phobias that intefer with their lives, such as fear of flying, and claustrophobia, by providing a safe, isolated environment.
PTSD Treatment Help with soldiers dealing with PTSD by using warefare simulations.
Pain Management Distraction therapy for burn and trauma victims can help alleviate pain.
Surgical Training Means of practice for doctors without the risk of to real patients.
Phantom Limb Pain Sensors can pick up nerve inputs from the brain to help patients use a virtual limb to complete tasks.
Brain damage rehabilitation Can assess brain damage and impairments by having patients perform spimple tasks.
Social Cognition Treatment Help kids with autism work on social skills by teaching them to read social skills and practice social behavior.
Meditation Treatment for people with anxiety by walking them through breathing excercises. The program connects with a band worn around the chest to measure breathing.
Disabled and Homebound Opportunities Provide experiences for those who otherwise cannot experience them, such as a bike ride or a walk.

Virtual reality seems like something straight out of a sci-fi utopia movie; placing a headset on and instantly being transported to a different world. The technology today is rapidly improving and virtual reality is leaning more and more towards reality. Consumer level VR sets are available, from gaming with the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive, to the more conservative Samsung Gear Headset, easily compatible with a smartphone. Though these applications are relevant to entertainment use, VR is also being integrated into the medical field. Healthcare has always advanced and evolved with technology, and one of the next steps is through virtual reality. VR can be helpful in assisting both doctors and patients with procedures, treatments, and recovery.

MRI scans can be particularly scary for children and even for adults, and VR is a way to help ease that fear. Hospital staff can use VR headsets to prepare children for their scans. It allows them to experience the scan, without being there in person. It is immersive, with the loud sounds of the MRI and the imagery of being in a cramped space, mimicking the actual MRI procedure. This can be beneficial because it prepares the patients for the real thing by having them experience it virtually first. They may not be as scared when they have the actual procedure. King’s College Hospital in London, England have been using this VR technique to help patients prepare for MRI scans.

supermarket VR
A VR supermarket as seen in the CAVE

Virtual reality is also being made available as a rehabilitation treatment. Patients with neurological diseases, such as early Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s, may find it difficult doing day to day activities like going to the supermarket or the laundromat. VR comes in handy by allowing patients experience this in a safe and controlled environment, and preparing them for the real world. This allows patients in rehab to better transition back into their lives. A hospital in Milan, Italy, the Istituto Auxologico Italiano has implemented this approach by having patients wear a VR set with a controller and placing them in 3 meter by 3 meter by 2 meter cube called the CAVE. This type of treatment can be tailored to fit the patient because by observing the patient interact with their virtual environment, the doctor can determine which part of the exercise the patient has more trouble. VR is a safe treatment tool for rehabilitation patients.

beach VR
What seniors see in the VR headset: A tranquil beach with inspiring text

Therapy is also another viable application of virtual reality. For seniors, the loneliness of living alone can cause depression or other illnesses. Maybe they cannot move as much as they were able to in the past and are unable to travel. VR can bring locations to them, allowing them to experience what they could not have previously. This can help lift their spirits and treat depression. Another potential application would be to those seniors with dementia. If they have trouble interacting with people, VR can provide seniors with the necessary social interaction they need. A specific example includes an elderly patient in the Aloha VR program in the San Francisco Bay area. He suffers from dementia and was anxious and did not participate in group therapy. When he tried the VR treatment, he became more alert and engaged, even singing and flapping his fingers with the bird in the program.

When virtual reality is mentioned, most tend to think of gaming or entertainment applications. Though those are some obvious uses for VR, it is really making an impact in the medical field too. Either by using it as a tool to make patients more comfortable with treatment or as a treatment option itself, VR really does have a future in the medical world.

Sources
Carson, Eric. “10 ways virtual reality is revolutionizing medicine and healthcare.”
TechRepublic
, 8 Apr. 2015, (link)
“Doctors use virtual reality to prepare children for scans.”
CNN
, 16 Feb. 2017, (link)
Mastrolonardo, Raffaele. “How doctors are prescribing VR to help patients cope with real life.”
ZDNet: Italy’s Got Tech
, 28 Sept. 2016, (link)
Tsukayama, Hayley. “This physician is using virtual reality to treat patients with dementia.”
The Washington Post
, 17 Nov. 2016, (link)