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20 Sep 2022

5 Ways Virtual Reality Can be Used for Medical Intervention and Rehabilitation

The role of technology continues to grow in medical intervention and rehabilitation, accelerated by the global pandemic and technological advancement. The development and use of Virtual Reality (VR) in healthcare have had many significant milestones over the past decades, driven largely by the advancement of VR devices like Oculus, Varjo, Pico, VIVE, and many more that were launched in 2021. And this expansion continues to accelerate today, with the growing expectations for VR integration into healthcare projected to reach 42 billion USD by 2028. 

Today, Virtual Reality-based experiences are no longer a novelty but rather becoming the go-to rehabilitation tool for many healthcare institutions worldwide. While a vaster implementation will require an extensive clinical trial, VR treatment and VR therapy has the potential to become as common as physiotherapy, helping with the rehabilitation of patients with the broadest spectrum of conditions. The technology can be used for conditions of different complexity. From recovery post-stroke to physiotherapy and even partial recovery of limb movement, helping patients recover some of the basic mobilities like the ability to walk back to the chair or even incorporating rehabilitation practices of exercises to help adolescents with cerebral palsy.

Intervention studies suggest that the effects of VR include its ability to mobilize recovery mechanisms. At the same time, the level of immersion, engagement, and the possibility to incorporate elements of gamification makes it suitable for specific intervention cases, including cognitive rehabilitation, upper and lower limb rehabilitation therapy, and stroke rehabilitation.

In one of the recent academic works, systematic review and meta-analysis research was conducted to discover the potential effect VR application could have on the rehabilitation of Parkinson's disease. Findings suggest that even though there are quite a few cases where VR is used for rehabilitation following the level of effectiveness of VR is yet to be clearly defined statistically and academically.

Extensive research is, without a doubt, required. It will also be essential to identify its consistency with previous research, face and content validity of virtual reality-based intervention and virtual reality exposure therapy. This will be important for understanding how to expand the effect size of rehabilitation in patients, working in conjunction with traditional rehabilitation methods and rehabilitation medicine.

At this point, more precise data extraction will be required, especially from the national institutes of health. Which, collected with informed consent, can provide a completely new pool of data to conduct studies using Virtual Reality and even potentially incorporate research topics like neural plasticity to have a more comprehensive understanding of the effects of Virtual Reality in virtual rehabilitation.

More extensive studies are needed, mainly including statistical analyses gathered from a vast pool of rehabilitation professionals who have and haven't before participated in the study. An expanded sample size of professionals engaged with vr-based rehabilitation should be included in the study for a more accurate study selection. This will help uncover different VR benefits in a randomized controlled trial, reducing the risk of bias and defining the efficacy of virtual reality-based rehabilitation intervention and how they may be related. It would then potentially showcase the difference between VR and traditional rehabilitation methods and how they can benefit healthcare professionals, caretakers, and patients.

With all being said, one concept for sure already seems straightforward. We are bound to see more virtual reality cases for health rehabilitation, the intervention included, integrated into healthcare institution's therapy programs.

In our previous article, we discussed the importance of Virtual Reality technology in healthcare, the benefits of its implementation, and the possibilities. Today, we would like to dive a bit deeper into one of the mentioned implementations - the use of Virtual Reality intervention and rehabilitation. 

As already mentioned, quite some research work, including systematic review and meta-analysis, has emerged in the past decade attempting to evaluate the impact, feasibility, and effectiveness of Virtual Reality experiences can have on both intervention and rehabilitation. They vary in scale and direction. Covering VR-based simulation and VR system incorporation into stroke rehabilitation, mental health issues treatment, supported motor rehabilitation, physiotherapy, cognitive impairment, and many more—some of the full-text research papers available on PubMed. Therefore, we would like to take a closer look at the potential VR can bring for medical intervention and rehabilitation, focusing on five perspective implementation directions such as mental health, life-long conditions, progressive diseases, cognitive function, and physical therapy.

Virtual Reality for Mental Health Intervention

The global pandemic has had its toll on individuals worldwide in one or the other way. Just in the US, 4 out of 10 adults have reported symptoms and noticed a negative impact on their mental state. Even before the global pandemic, Virtual Reality has been a tool frequently used in mental health intervention, starting already from the mid-1990s. The possibility to submerge users into a controlled simulated virtual environment is the main advantage of using VR intervention for a variety of mental health conditions, including phobias and PTSD. The immersive experiences allow simulating triggers and settings that set off the symptoms while making the interaction paced, safe, and supervised. Trigger simulation enables patients to come face to face with the issue, helping train them to overcome the symptoms while led by a medical specialist. VR can be used to create an environment where patients can confront issues while in controlled sensory stimuli. Virtual Reality capabilities go much further, even having the potential to reduce the lockdown-caused negative impact on mental health by providing users with means to keep active, occupied, and connected to others worldwide.

Virtual Reality for Life-Long Conditions Intervention

Life-long conditions affect millions worldwide beyond just the individuals, impacting their immediate circle and society in general. Incorporating Virtual Reality into the intervention process makes it possible to engage users with immersive solutions that have the potential to become a transformative tool that supports healthy development and helps deliver benefits across the lifespan. One of the main advantages of VR is the possibility to create or replicate any environment, which allows submerging users into a scenario without having to relocate while remaining safe and under specialist supervision. It allows to create environments where users can practice and learn various skills, from improving their cognitive ability, and helping with emotional and relationship development, to becoming more independent and maximizing their ability to function and participate in the community. Virtual Reality can also serve as powerful leverage to educate the immediate circle, caretakers, medical specialists, and general society on how people with life-long conditions experience life, helping build awareness and empathy through firsthand experience.

Virtual Reality for Progressive Diseases Rehabilitation

Progressive diseases refer to conditions that progress in severity over time, impacting the general state of health of the patient as well as their quality of life. Over time, Virtual Reality has become one of the tools to be used for rehabilitation. Its capability to create engaging, gamified environments allows users to practice routine intervention methods in safe life-like scenarios, helping users adapt and engage in everyday functional activities. Virtual Reality can serve as a motivating and engaging environment that allows users to form neural behavior and help patients with progressive disease engage in low-pressure physical activities. The possibility to track, record, and analyze inside the VR simulations can serve as an additional stimulus. It helps users see their progress, boosting motivation and confidence. The flexibility of VR experiences allows it to be adapted and implemented for users with different levels of disease severity, adjustable for necessary difficulty and physical ability. VR can be an excellent tool for rehabilitation centers and hospitals, especially if combined with traditional rehabilitation methods.

Virtual Reality for Cognitive Function Rehabilitation

Cognitive functions include several domains, from memory, language, perception, executive functions, attention, and more. Virtual Reality can help create environments that allow users to practice various cognitive skills in a tailor-made environment. The gamification of the simulations is one of the advantageous capabilities that make up the nature of VR, making Virtual Reality an excellent tool for cognitive function intervention making the rehabilitation tasks and process seem more engaging and appear less routine. VR can be a great additional tool to work hand in hand with traditional cognitive interventions, improving perception, orientation, and concentration functions. Immersive simulations help users feel present and concentrated, providing an opportunity to practice tasks and functions broken down into smaller steps. High visual fidelity helps form stronger cognitive connections, allowing for an easy information perception. A significant advantage of VR is in its capability to be used remotely, enabling patients and medical specialists to interact from different locations. This can be especially helpful in times of ongoing lockdowns, as it allows one to continue supervised rehabilitation without having to be physically present at the medical facility.

Virtual Reality for Physical Therapy

Integrating Virtual Reality into physical therapy can serve as an engaging tool that can keep users focused on the task and support the level of motivation, adding a sense of challenge and, thus, a sense of accomplishment to the experience. The gamification elements of a VR simulation can help make the physical therapy process feel more natural as it replicates real-life activities and surroundings. The immersive experiences can be built for a different level of difficulty and combined with a treadmill or any other device or object used for physical rehabilitation. The possibility of making low-impact VR experiences enables users of different capacities to practice skills and complete tasks at their own pace. The option to track, record, and analyze is an excellent additional motivation for users. It also provides necessary data for medical specialists to manage and direct the physical therapy process. In addition, the mobility of standalone VR headsets and their vast availability allow users to engage in VR-enhanced physical therapy remotely while still under the supervision of a medical specialist. Thus combining the VR simulation with existing physical therapy methods can be a beneficial tool for patient recovery.

In conclusion, it is essential to state that more studies using VR are still required to evaluate the full benefits Virtual Reality can bring to healthcare, particularly to intervention and rehabilitation. Nevertheless, it is becoming evident that more and more medical specialists worldwide utilize the power of this immersive tool in conjunction with traditional methods and practices, expanding the number of future VR use cases in many intervention and rehabilitation directions. The further healthcare evolves as an industry, the more technology will become entwined in the regular practices, allowing medical specialists and patients to achieve more.  

Authors: Alex Dzyuba, Lucid Reality Labs Founder & CEO | Anna Rohi, Lucid Reality Labs Senior Marketing & Communications Manager

Article Last Edited 20 September 2022.