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The excitement around virtual reality (VR) has long been associated with video games and other entertainment, but the VR revolution could also help transform the world of health. For patients who suffer from anxiety, phobias and even chronic pain, new therapies using increasingly accessible and affordable virtual reality technology are showing promising results.
“Really, virtual reality treatment comes from the classic idea of immersion,” says Dr. Mark Wiederhold who, along with his wife, Dr. Brenda Wiederhold, runs the Virtual Reality Medical Center in San Diego, California. The center offers therapy for everything from fear of flying to combat-related PTSD. In classic immersion therapy, a subject is exposed to their fear: say, the common fear of flying, by forcing themselves to experience it over and over again until they are desensitized. This would traditionally involve multiple trips to the airport and enduring numerous white-knuckle flights. But virtual reality can provide the same experience without going far from home, and with the added benefit of medical oversight. “With virtual reality, we can control the experience the subject is having and build their arousal and anxiety slowly while monitoring their vital signs,” says Dr. Wiederhold. “I’ve had patients get in the VR setup one time and say they feel like they are truly going through the experience, and also experiencing some relief afterwards, and that convinces us there is something there.”
Take Dr. Wiederhold’s most common patient: a person suffering with anxiety after a car accident, who is reluctant to get back on the road. Through a virtual reality interface, the patient will be able to walk through the steps associated with their anxiety: getting in the car, starting the engine, turning onto the road, and navigating around other cars, in a way that simulates reality but lets them face their fears and, through a calculated immersion program, hopefully become inoculated to them.
“We started looking at this 20 years ago,” says Dr. Wiederhold, “But now we’re in a time with incredible technical advances that are leading to great possibilities we didn’t even imagine were possible 20 years ago.”
Those possibilities include treating patients who come back from war, and are struggling with PTSD. ”When we put them in the VR, some say they are back in Baghdad,” says Dr. Wiederhold. “But we are able to slowly ramp up the stimulus, and help them work through extreme experiences in a controlled, therapeutic way.”
In Dr. Wiederhold’s office, patients are able to help get past their fears with fewer costs and inconveniences than ever before. Now, with virtual reality technology becoming more affordable than in the past, he sees even greater possibilities. “We believe that soon we will see more opportunities to conduct therapy on an outpatient basis as well,” he says.
Virtual Reality headsets used to cost in the range of $30,000, with even the most affordable models still running from $1,000-$5000. But now companies like Oculus Rift, which was recently acquired by Facebook, are beginning to offer devices for as low as $200-300.
Dr. Jim Blascovich, founder of UC Santa Barbara’s Research Center for Virtual Environments, predicts that as VR setups become more accessible, they’ll become an integral part of our daily lives, and could become an easy and affordable at-home therapy.
“It started with the Kinect, really” he says, referring to the line of motion-sensor devices for Microsoft’s Xbox 360 and Xbox One. “Once people can have these motion sensors in their homes and the virtual reality headset becomes less expensive, it becomes a viable thing for more people to have a personal virtual reality setup.”
He believes VR therapy is helpful because it works with the natural human drive to find distractions and refuge from pain and fear in daydreams and alternate realities. “As humans, we have the internal capacity to travel virtually, and we do it 4-5 times in a night. Our minds wander during the day,” he says. “We could always do this through our imaginations. Storytelling, cave drawings: all those were in a sense us creating a virtual reality. But over the last millennia, technology has expanded and given us more tools to do so. Right now we’re at a time when we have extremely powerful tools.”
Virtual reality isn’t just helping ease minds — research has shown VR to be extremely useful for sufferers of chronic pain, which include over 100 million Americans and 30 percent of veterans. In 2008, Dr. Hunter Hoffman of The University of Washington created a program called SnowWorld. Going through the SnowWorld program — which featured cold tundra imagery and allowed users to shoot fireballs — victims of traumatic burns were able to experience some relief from their pain. In a 2011 study of Snow World’s efficacy conducted the US military, the soothing and distracting elements of SnowWorld’s virtual reality worked as well or better than morphine.
The research into how VR can help victims of chronic pain is continuing to expand.
Dr. Jeremy Bailensen and Dr. Andrea Won of Stanford University recently conducted a pilot study to see how young patients with Complex Regional Pain Syndrome, a chronic condition affecting the legs, arms and feet, responded to virtual reality treatment. During the program, patients were asked to hit targets using avatar bodies they could control with physical movements.
While this was only a proof of concept trial, to determine whether or not the results would be harmful to the patients, Won says the initial result were very encouraging. While patients in standard physical therapies would pause, wince or report pain about every two to three minutes, these subjects were more engaged, carried out 96 percent of tasks and played for five minutes or more without stopping. Afterwards, Won says, many reported that the virtual reality environment was “cool” and “motivating.”
Although this particular trial was on teenagers, Dr. Won doesn’t believe the positive results of virtual reality therapy will be limited to digital natives. “It may be the kind of thing that young people find easy to embrace, because they are open to new experiences, but before long it extends to everyone – like email and social media.” she says. “One day it might be as common to have a VR setup in your home as a smartphone.”
For researchers like Won, the virtual revolution is definitely upon us. “I believe we’re at a threshold where this technology is going to be available to many more people,” she says. “We just need to work to figure out the right way for it to help the most people.”