Virtual reality (VR) is among the great marvels of the digital age. The ability to experience new digitally created worlds has proven to be a fascinating prospect to say the least. In the mainstream media, virtual reality is viewed as an entertainment medium with the video gaming industry giants, such as Playstation, constantly developing the VR tech to provide a more gaming friendly experience. However, VR has the potential to be much more as evident from the concept of virtual reality therapy (VRT) – the use of VR to treat various physical and mental ailments. The term VRT was coined in 1994 and as the technology involved continues to flourish so does the prospects of VRT to make a positive impact in humanity.
“VRT conquers mental and physical feats that were impossible yesterday”
In today’s world, VRT is serving as a viable tool in combating both physiological and psychological disabilities. One of the most notable applications of VRT is to help patients overcome various phobias such as claustrophobia (fear of being in congested places), fear of public speaking and acrophobia (irrational fear of heights). The procedure of VRT is quite simple. The example of fear of flight can be taken. The patients visit the clinic and by means of VR equipment, such as googles, sound system etc., they are inserted in a flight scenario . With the passage of time and multiple sittings, the patient is able to overcome their fear. This concept of treatment is known as exposure therapy. It is a specific type of cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy technique, often used in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and phobias. For phobias, exposure therapy is used in conjunction with relaxation exercises and/or imagery. In conjunction with learning how to bring about a relaxed state at will, the therapy technique gradually exposes patients to what frightens them and helps them cope with their fears.
Apart from the aforementioned applications, VRT is serving to alleviate other medical issues as well. It has become a key stroke rehabilitation tool. VRT is useful for augmenting rehabilitation of the upper and lower limbs of patients suffering from stroke and other neurological injuries. Virtual reality therapy has also showed promise in helping young adults with autism. This is done by providing them with different social interaction scenarios through a virtual avatar with the goal of overcoming their communication disability. So far, the results have been very positive. Virtual Reality Therapy also overlaps with the gaming aspect of VR and provides treatment of issues like depression. Sparx, a fantasy video game, is designed with depression patients in mind and has been seen as effective.
VRT has come leaps and bounds in a short period of time but the technology remains in its infancy. There are issues to be resolved such as complaints of over exposure to VRT leading to side-effects like cyber sickness (a virtual motion sickness). Moreover, there are still limited physicians with proper VRT training which may reduce its availability for the time being. That being said, the pros still outweigh the cons and the prospect of VRT becoming a permanent fixture in the world of medicine remains bright!