Thanks to virtual reality becoming more popular in mainstream markets due to its affordability, it’s slowly making its way into professional areas. One such industry is physical therapy. Physical therapy often deals with patients who have suffered an injury that results in functional mobility issues and pain and looks to a professional for help returning to normal.
VR headsets are starting to become a tool physical therapists use in order to support their patients with Parkinson’s disease, Multiple Sclerosis, chronic pain management, autism, ADD, developmental delays, orthopedic conditions, and more. Patients will put on their VR headsets and find themselves in an immersive, responsive world. When they move, the virtual world moves with them. This tool can help engage patients in their rehab and help them achieve their rehabilitation goals. Patients may find the sessions more enjoyable which keeps them coming back for help. It’s the kind of tool that motivates people to want to come to physical therapy and participate instead of being passive participants.
Tasks in the virtual world can be tailored to the needs of the patients because, in a computer-generated setting, the possibilities for improvement are endless. Depending on the course of treatment, the VR simulation will be used to create engaging and challenging situations to help people stay focused and as they progress, those situations will become slightly more challenging in order to meet the patient’s ever-changing needs.
These VR interventions are also helpful for the therapists, as they can watch on a monitor what the patient is seeing while also tracking progress in kinematics, movement dynamics, and muscle activation. The ability to see this progress quantified in front of them provides timely feedback on the patients’ progress and the quality of tasks they perform in order to correct possible mistakes before they become a habit.
Virtual reality in medical settings is still new, but new research is evolving constantly to show off how this new technology can benefit patients. For example, in June 2019, the Medical Science Monitor released the findings of a study with 28 patients with Parkinson’s disease where one group was given VR therapy for 12 weeks, while the other group was given conventional physical therapy for the same amount of time. At the end of the study, the groups were both assessed on how much they’d improved since beginning treatment and while both groups showed improvement in balance and gait, those who had VR therapy had significantly greater improvements under multiple different forms of measurement this study used, not just balance and gait. Other studies have concluded similar results in other types of rehab as well, concluding that it could be a useful tool that is safe and effective in assisting patients looking to best reach their physical therapy goals.
Unfortunately, there have only been a few studies done on the merits of VR technology and it’s still a relatively new frontier in the world of medicine and health. More research still needs to be done to ensure that it is safe as patients have a limited field of vision combined with altered reality. It’s possible that without being able to see or hear the real world, combined with reduced mobility, it could cause impairments during your treatment that may potentially set the patient back. As this is still new, there are plenty of aspects that have yet to be studied in-depth and it may not be right for everybody. Patients whose therapists are considering it for their treatment should always tell their practitioner if it’s an approach they are comfortable with. After all, if the patient doesn’t feel safe, they will not be able to improve.