Virtual reality is a field of extended reality where the scope of the world extends into the digital field. Rather than the digital world being brought out to meet the user, the user steps into a place that's entirely different from where they are in the physical world. For a while now, virtual and extended reality in general have been limited to gaming and entertainment. Within the last decade, however, other industries have taken notice and found the benefits of virtual reality within their own scope. One such industry is medicine. While still in its early stages, studies are being done on virtual reality in the medical field and how it can advance things like surgery and patient care. Here are a few areas in which virtual reality has already been proven useful.
Virtual Reality in Mental Health
The Journal of Traumatic Stress, Vol. 12 (Rothbaum, et. al.) details a study done on the effects of virtual reality and how it can help with post-traumatic stress disorders. This study took a Vietnam veteran with classic post-traumatic stress symptoms, including major depressive disorder and past alcohol abuse, with the addition of medication to manage stress episodes and gave him virtual reality therapy. This therapy was completely immersive and even included using a “Thunder Seat” that mimicked the movements of a Huey helicopter. Since the sound of a helicopter was a specific trigger that would bring on the memory of the events causing PTSD in this vet, it was especially important part of the exposure therapy- the specific type of therapy used in combination with VRT.
Results of the study were mostly inconclusive, mainly because it was only one vet that took on this therapy, but in the assessment points where he would detail certain symptoms he frequently experienced he indicated that most of his symptoms went from severe to moderate. It also concluded that reexperiencing the event that caused his PTSD was almost nonexistent. While this is just one instance of a case study done years ago, it does show the positive effects that VRT can have on mental health.
Immersion or exposure therapy using virtual reality would put a person in the specific setting that trigger stress for them. Over time and multiple sessions guided by trained therapists a positive end result of less stress in given situations was conclusive. Where vets are concerned, PTSD is the most disabling disorder and accounts for most of their disability ratings. This could be drastically reduced if VR exposure therapy were made more available prior to leaving the military and after. (Source)
Virtual Reality in Surgery and Patient Care
Surgery is a very hands-on field of medicine. The very nature of surgery is incredibly invasive and potentially damaging. Virtual reality today ha provided the medical field with the same game changing innovation that nitrous oxide did when Horace wells first used it to numb the pain during a tooth extraction. Before this surgery was a last resort, used only when other methods did not work and the patient was already likely to die from their symptoms. Surgery was painful, patients were generally tied down screaming from the pain, and equipment, not to mention the surgeon's hands, were never washed between surgeries. With this new substance, patients drifted to sleep and stayed that way the entire surgery, feeling no pain until the medication wore off. Now if only they could just get the patients to survive the infection that often came afterwards.
Like nitrous oxide, virtual reality has given new possibilities to make surgery better. The George Washington University Hospital has implemented virtual reality into regular surgical processes from their pre-op briefing with the patient and actual surgery to teaching technique. In using virtual reality, surgeons at the hospital have been able to:
- Explain diagnoses in a more in-depth manner,
- Reassure patients that the procedure will go smoothly,
- Determine the best possible steps to take in the operating room before opening the patient up,
- Determine if surgery is the right step to take, and
- Help the patient understand how their body is healing post operation.
Virtual reality can show the sick part of a person's body using scans previously taken for diagnostic purposes. Patients can take walks through their own body to understand the internal workings of, not only their healthy functioning body, but the infection or cancer that has affected them. Surgery is a scary step towards patient health, and using virtual reality in this way, doctors can take away that fear of the unknown. (Source)
Virtual Reality in Maternal Health
Birth is a reality that humans deal with on a daily basis. Millions of women are in labor at any given time and many choose to labor unmedicated (without the use of an epidural, nitrous oxide, oxygen, etc.). It's a difficult task but allows the woman to be more in tune with her body and the natural process that it needs to take in order to bring that new life in the world. To do this, a woman will go through months of preparing and planning how to manage the pain with things like water therapy, breathing exercises, hypnobirthing, and aromatherapy to name a few. All of these things are used to help the woman take her mind off the pain and focus on the desired outcome. Virtual reality has been used recently to offer the same sort of pain management. Given the opportunity it could become another tool in the repertoire for laboring women.
But how can virtual reality offer this kind of pain management?
Often times in labor women are told to use visualization and imagine a quiet calm place in order to lower their blood pressure and reduce anxiety and pain by refocusing it into something else. Sometimes, no matter how hard the woman is trying, visualization doesn't work because of the extent of the pain. Virtual reality offers semi- or fully immersive environments automatically that the laboring woman doesn't have to think about. It could guide her through meditation and help her breathe through the pain, ultimately helping distract her from the pain of childbirth.
Another major stress to the mother is how the baby is doing during labor. While the mother's body progresses, the baby's body is also working through the same stresses. Monitoring of the baby is typically done with heart monitors over the belly, or an internal monitor stuck on the baby's skull. A rhythmic thrumming is then pushed through speakers to mimic the movements and heartbeat of the baby. This is effective, but oftentimes the baby shifts, dislodging the monitors and creating more stress as nurses work to ensure a smooth transition. A simple projected scan of the baby's vitals in the environment would help to alleviate some of the stress that comes with childbirth, leading to less pain in the end.
These are only a few ways that virtual reality has helped reinvent medicine in recent years. Virtual reality is a fully immersive technology capable of wonderful things. On top of its ability to aid in mental health, surgical and pain management, it can be of use to dentists, physical therapists and more. The truth is that virtual reality in the medicine is only just beginning to be explored for its benefits and uses, and the advancements in the medical field thus far are only a fraction of what could be seen in years to come.