VR (Virtual Reality) Physical Therapy and Fitness: Your Questions Answered

January 17, 2018
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VR Physical Therapy

In the physical therapy world, techniques and strategies used are constantly changing. But with the addition of virtual reality in the healthcare world, many PTs are using this type of technology as a way to make sessions more fun while boosting a patient’s cognitive skills and confidence. Research has shown that patients who use VR therapy during a PT session tend to feel more motivated and will even work harder, providing the type of results that are creating quite the buzz in the healthcare and fitness industry.

How Virtual Reality is Changing the World of Physical Therapy

Physical therapy utilizes rehabilitation strategies that can help to prevent or heal injuries caused by stroke, accidents, heart attacks, and birth defects. Physical therapy is often recommended for athletes, people who are recovering from surgery or an injury, and stroke victims. Physical therapy focuses on treating impairments and injuries in order to improve and promote mobility and muscular function. Instead of solely relying on over the counter and prescription medication, this type of therapy can help to strengthen and empower patients, giving them more control over their recovery process. Governing bodies such as the APTA, also known as the American Physical Therapy Association, work hard to ensure that PTs provide patients with a wide variety of treatments designed to encourage patients to partake in their own recovery using techniques that best suit their abilities and needs.

In recent years, virtual reality physical therapy has introduced new treatment approaches that are designed to engage patients who are suffering from chronic back pain, mobility disorders, and neurological disorders. VR techniques are designed to speed up the learning process in both virtual reality and real environments. Treatment focuses on helping the patient to unlearn ineffective past movement strategies. The result? The patient is better able to focus their attention on the effects of each of their movements, using external focus.

Aside from refocusing a patient on the proper way to execute exercises, these VR systems also make treatment more fun as patients actively and enthusiastically engage in normal routine exercises and stretches. Most systems work by projecting an image of the patient in a VR environment on a screen. Next, a patient performs their routine stretches and exercises. As the patient’s body works parallel to the image on the screen they tend to be more focused on using proper technique, in a variety of environments. Additionally, many physical therapists have reported that not only do patients tend to relax more and experience increased mental focus, but they’ve also found that a changing environment in a VR setting also works to improve cognitive abilities in patients with neurological diseases, brain injuries, and patients who are recovering from strokes. Traditionally, a PT session will take place in the patient’s home or at a physical therapy facility. With the introduction of VR treatments, the patient will enjoy the benefit of exploring other locations.

Recent studies have shown that stroke sufferers who participated in VR PT sessions experienced a significant increase in strength when compared to traditional PT routines. Patients who have difficulty speaking, ambulating, and moving their limbs are immersed in an environment where the mirror therapy concept is taken to greater heights. Patients will experience a whole new level of sensory input, while the physical therapist will benefit from the data output that can be collected at the end of each session.

However, this treatment is still in its infant stage, which is why it’s not widely used. Researchers are still developing the VR core therapy technologies that are designed to improve movement and tactile components. But even at this stage, the progress and results patients have experienced are very promising and encouraging.

The IREX PT Gamified Therapy System

IREX PT Gamified Therapy System

The Interactive Rehab and Exercise system is used to immerse patients in a type of gamified setting, allowing the patient to choose from different environments to go through their PT routines. Because patients are able to see themselves as fully mobile, with a body that’s completely functional, researchers believe that this type of mirror therapy is very stimulating and motivating to the patient, encouraging them to push themselves harder, focus more, and exercise more consistently in order to make that projected image of a healthier, more mobile body a reality.

With continued development, researchers believe that in just a few short years VR will be widely used to encourage a faster recovery process in all patients, whether they’re suffering from a massive stroke, bone fractures, joint replacement, chronic back pain, or arthritis.

VR Therapy for Anxiety Disorders: A More Natural Approach to Treating Social Anxiety

All human beings are wired as highly social creatures, but not everyone deals with handling social situations the same way, or as easily. For some, the very idea of interacting with another person can be terrifying, intimidating, and can cause their anxiety levels to spike. People who suffer from social anxiety tend to avoid public places or group gatherings as much as possible. Simple tasks such as grocery shopping or even walking the dog can be overwhelming. Of course, medications are available to treat people suffering from anxiety disorders, but often, these medications cause unwanted side effects such as headaches, weight gain, insomnia, and nausea. If you’ve suffered from severe anxiety for years and have tried several medications with no success, virtual reality therapy may be the next best step.

Cognitive behavioral therapy is usually the standard treatment for social anxiety sufferers. Both CBT and in-vivo exposure therapy are used to slowly expose the patient to social situations. These treatments are designed to basically desensitize the patient to social situations, working to gradually increase their tolerance for social interactions. But some patients struggle with an early introduction to social settings. This process is not only time consuming, but it can trigger a whole new level of fear in some patients, causing them to further alienate themselves from the public.

So, for patients with severe social anxiety what’s the best solution?

Virtual reality exposure therapy can be the best option when it comes to treating patients with moderate to severe cases of social anxiety. VR therapy can give the patient a safe environment to work out their social anxiety issues, and in a sense, can give them more control over a social setting. This type of therapy is designed to provide the patient with new ways to cope effectively with situations that would normally cause their anxiety levels to skyrocket.  During treatment, the patient will wear the best VR headset such as the widely popular PlayStation VR headset, or the Oculus Rift VR headset, while watching a simulation.

People with social anxiety can work behind the scenes to challenge their fears in a safe, realistic environment, and in a way that gives them control.  The simulation program used will display avatars that the patient will interact with during a variety of everyday social situations, such as ordering food at a restaurant or grocery shopping. In the beginning, this simulation program will focus more on simple social situations in order to avoid overwhelming the patient. The patient’s psychologist will follow along with these interactions, noting the patient’s actions and responses, providing feedback and coaching them through each experience when needed. VRET, also known as virtual reality exposure therapy can allow patients to feel more relaxed in these social settings because these simulations can be stopped or paused anytime the patient begins to feel stressed. Despite the fact that the patient is completely aware that the social situation is merely a simulation, an increase in their stress level often occurs, which shows just how effective these programs can be at helping a patient to learn how to effectively deal with their anxiety in a variety of environments.

But just how effective is VRET? A study that was conducted in 2013 compared patients who underwent twelve months of VRET therapy with patients who participated in twelve months of treatment following traditional in-vivo exposure therapy and found that both types of therapy were very effective in reducing anxiety levels. More research is needed in order to determine the long-term effects and benefits of VRET therapy, but as it stands, all research conducted has indicated that it’s just as effective as traditional treatment methods used to treat patients suffering from social anxiety disorders.

Virtual Reality Therapy Equipment

Virtual reality technology is fairly simple. You wear the best virtual reality headset where you’ll see images that are rendered in stereoscopic 3D. These very lifelike images will trick the wearer into believing that they’re looking at a real environment and not just images that are displayed a few inches before their eyes. Virtual reality software is available for a number of gaming platforms including PlayStation and Xbox, but the type of software commonly used by psychologists isn’t usually released to the public. This includes flight simulations for patients who suffer from a fear of flying, software that focuses on PTSD, and of course, software that simulates social interactions designed for patients with anxiety disorders. Physical therapists will use special programs that offer mirror therapy in which the patient’s image is used for the avatar that is performing the exercises.

Typically, the psychologist and physical therapists will use top of the line VR headsets, such as the Google Daydream VR headset, but more commonly, you’ll find that more professionals opt for the Oculus Rift, simply because it offers the most comfortable fit and excellent sound quality, both of which are important to a successful treatment session in which the patient must remain focused and relaxed.

A VR headset looks like a techy pair of goggles. They’re worn over the eyes and display high-def images. The main goal of these headsets is to make the wearer forget they’re using VR goggles and instead it works to immerse the wearer into a whole new world. In best VR games for adults, the wearer’s point of view is the same as the character’s point of view. Most models of VR headsets will track the wearer’s movements, which means whatever they look at their character or avatar will look in that direction as well. The headset’s ability to track the wearer’s movements is what works to make the user feel as though they’re truly inside the game or simulated environment. The headsets used by therapy professionals work in the same manner. But because the realism of the environment is so important to successful treatment, wearing only the best VR headsets is crucial. The headsets themselves must be connected to a console or computer. To use a program, the therapist may operate the joystick or may use one in addition to the joystick given to the patient, in order to help control the simulated environment. The joystick or keyboard is what will manipulate the patient’s movements as they walk around or change direction, while the headset will focus on the user’s sight, hearing, and head movements.

In the beginning, because these simulations are so lifelike, the patient can immediately feel overwhelmed and a little disoriented. It will be the therapist’s job to carefully gauge the patient’s response and stop or pause a session when appropriate.

Other VR gear can include special controls such as flight sticks, motion controls, gamepads, and a keyboard. These extra devices will give the physical therapist or psychologist more control over the treatment session, allowing them to adjust the settings or pause a session when needed. The type of equipment needed for a simulation will depend on the type of program and console used.

Final Thoughts

As you can see, virtual reality can offer much more than just a fun gaming experience. In fact, many mental health professionals feel that it’s the future of mental health treatments. As research continues and advancements are made to virtual reality technology, more and more mental health and physical therapy professionals will begin to incorporate these types of treatments into patient therapy sessions in order to provide more effective and engaging techniques that can really provide results.

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