BY: ELIJAH BASSETT
Virtual reality technology has taken some huge steps forward in the last few years, with no signs of slowing down. And although a lot of the discussion around VR tends to focus on its applications for entertainment, it turns out it also has the potential to help treat a variety of health issues, from chronic pain to psychosis. While the VR programs that have been developed so far can’t treat these problems all on their own, they have the potential to improve care for all kinds of patients in all kinds of ways.
Naturally, the way it works depends on what it’s treating. For example, some of the chronic pain treatments involve creating meditation sessions or virtual walks through a forest setting. The meditation program relaxes the patient while they lie in a specially-designed chamber, and the forest program simulates a walk through a forest while a guided meditation track plays. It might not sound like the kind of thing that would help physical pain, but the effects can be significant.
In fact, one study that administered a five-minute VR session called Cool! to thirty patients with chronic pain found that the program reduced pain by 60 percent during the program. More importantly, it also reduced pain by 33 percent for 6 to 48 hours following the treatment. According to Ted Jones, one of the researchers, even this is “not as long as we would like,” but the fact that the effects of a five minute VR program can last for this long is impressive and certainly a good first step.
As impressive as it is, another specialist, Neil Jamensky, points out that “a pain score may not always be the best way to assess treatment success, since the therapeutic goal may not be to eliminate pain or improve this score, but to ensure better sleep, better mobility, improved mood or even an ability to return to work.” So the mental aspects of treatment are also hugely important, even for conditions that we might usually think are purely physical. Fortunately, it turns out that VR is also pretty well suited to dealing with more psychological problems.
In fact, there are all kinds of companies driving research in VR treatments for psychological problems including phobias, anxiety disorders, and paranoid psychosis. That probably has a lot to do with how well the technology meshes with some very effective methods that have already been established in psychology. Specifically, it can fit into the treatments known as exposure therapy and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).
Exposure therapy is generally used to treat phobias, PTSD, and anxiety by exposing the patient to whatever triggers their fear and showing them that nothing bad actually happens. It also lets them get used to frightening or anxiety-inducing situations in a context that seems more safe. CBT is a similar form of therapy that teaches patients to challenge their irrational thoughts with logic and critical thinking. These therapeutic frameworks have been hugely influential for companies like CleVR and VirtualRET, who, among others, have put a lot of thought into how to implement technology into these treatments.
So far, these programs aren’t actually meant to replace therapists. Instead, they can enhance treatments by giving the therapist total control over exposure situations, and allowing the patient to participate even if they don’t want to do the exposure in the real world because their fear is too severe (this is especially a problem for patients with paranoia). Because of how convincing virtual reality can be, it can often prompt the same kinds of reactions that real life would, but in the privacy and safety of a therapist’s office.
By experiencing simulations of experiences that trigger their anxiety, whether it’s flying, seeing a spider, taking the bus, or anything else, patients can then engage with these fears in a more controlled way and start to overcome them. But even if you don’t have a specific mental or physical illness that needs treating, there are also virtual reality programs for more general mental well-being. Stress and anxiety are common enough that even healthy people can benefit from the kinds of meditation and relaxation programs that VR companies have been developing, even if not all have been clinically verified.
All of this raises the question of what the future of healthcare – and especially mental health care – will look like. Given the troubling potential side effects and addictiveness of many medications, scientific developments in treating pain or mental illness are definitely worth welcoming and taking further. Plus, as VR becomes more and more accessible to the public, it is possible that therapeutic programs could too. Although most of the more clinical ones that currently exist are meant to be used with a trained therapist, it is possible that we will start to see programs that offer more independence in the years to come. If that does happen, they still may not be as effective as the therapist-driven ones, but the increased accessibility could be an advantage for people who, for whatever reason, can’t work with a mental health professional.
Even if it doesn’t go in that direction, these developments in treatment for both physical and mental illnesses bode very well for the future of patients dealing with these issues. It may not be what we expected from virtual reality, but it’s definitely something to hope for.