5 Therapeutic Ways to Use Virtual Reality

It's not all fun and games. Virtual reality technology is used for recreational and rehabilitative purposes.
It's not all fun and games. Virtual reality technology is used for recreational and rehabilitative purposes.
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Our favorite ways to imagine using virtual reality can be a little aspirational. Say, escaping the dull gray of January by using VR goggles to place ourselves on a virtual beach, sipping Mai Tais, pool boys fanning away. Or maybe standing in your backyard, using a VR-enabled video game to envision yourself as a batter in the lineup at Fenway during the World Series.

While those uses of virtual reality are, no doubt, going to make you feel pretty good about yourself (assuming you can get a hit off the pitcher, of course), there's a set of folks who are using virtual reality technology for serious treatment of mental and physical issues. In the next few pages, we'll take a look at some people who are studying ways to use virtual reality for therapeutic benefit and we'll explore some places it's already being used.


Visualize yourself on the next page, and we'll get started.

5: Pain Treatment

One of the most interesting ways of treating patients using virtual reality may not meet your typical "therapeutic" ideas. For one, it's actually treating a physical response.

Scientists at the University of Washington have been studying ways for severe burn victims to undergo excruciating grafting operations with less pain. Not only did they find that putting a person in a virtual reality setting resulted in the patient recording their pain as less severe, but they also found that a soothing virtual experience would reduce the anxiety patients felt recalling the pain of their initial burn.


By introducing a program called SnowWorld, they put patients in a virtual reality program where they traipsed through a winter wonderland, hanging out with penguins on icebergs and having virtual snowball fights with friendly snowmen as flakes gently drift.

Oddly enough, SnowWorld was actually developed on a program called SpiderWorld. On the next page, we'll see what happens in SpiderWorld and how it's used as a therapeutic tool.

4: Phobias

Most of us can list something we're unreasonably or irrationally afraid of. Be it heights, public speaking or pigeons with their big beady eyes and pecking beaks ready to fly into your head without warning (listen, we all have our things), sometimes our fears develop into a paralyzing anxiety. It might mean we can't walk up stairs, excel in work or sit within 100 yards of the crazy person in the park who thinks it's totally reasonable to throw bread crumbs to flying vermin.

And when we get to that point, virtual reality can be a safe tool for slowly introducing triggers and comfort to a patient to overcome their fears. As we talked about on the previous page, a program called SpiderWorld has been used to treat (you guessed it) arachnophobia. Patients are first introduced to a virtual room with a tarantula, and are coached to move as close to the spider as possible with a joystick. Eventually, they use a sensor on their hand to "touch" a spider in the room (while feeling the tactile sensation of touching from stuffed toy spider). All the actions are repeated until the patient feels a reduced sense of anxiety. (Also note that they use the soundtrack to "Psycho" at one point; these doctors are not messing around when it comes to serious desensitization).


But what about a less specific kind of anxiety? Let's check out the next page to see how virtual reality is being used to treat post-traumatic stress.

3: Post-traumatic Stress

Stress after a traumatic event can cause a person to start practicing behaviors that are quite different from their usual self. Avoiding situations, persistent overwhelming anxiety and intense reactions to events might all suddenly become an everyday experience for post-traumatic stress patients.

Virtual reality has been used as a way to chip away at those responses, allowing the patients to more fully immerse themselves in a healthy life. Immersion therapy has shown to be a highly successful course for post-traumatic stress patients, but of course that leads to some difficulties. Mainly, it's pretty irresponsible to, say, set up a car crash so patients can explore the stimulus that's been causing them pain.


With virtual reality, however, patients can explore a safe atmosphere that might simulate the event they experienced. It might seem odd, but being confronted with the images of their trauma can trigger memories or emotional experiences; therapy is then used to confront and accept the event. Survivors of terrorist attacks, for instance, might "visit" a virtual town square, where a bus is blown up. Reacting to the experience, a patient would be asked to analyze and delve into their memories of the traumatic event they themselves were part of.

2: Schizophrenia

One of the more unusual uses of virtual reality is to study -- and even treat -- schizophrenia. You might be thinking that putting a schizophrenic person into an imaginary world is a terrible idea; it certainly sounds a bit counterintuitive. But remember that one of the biggest benefits of virtual reality is the safety of the environment. In this case, that applies not just to the patient, but to the people around him or her.

First off, schizophrenia can be measured in a virtual environment in a way that wouldn't work in the real world. Like a lot of mental illnesses, schizophrenia must be understood in social context. (Interacting in the real world is where mental illness starts to present itself, after all.) But it's not safe (or ethical) to put a schizophrenic person in an atmosphere that might cause them anxiety or where they might react dangerously. So researchers developed virtual reality tools to help. One is a program that imitates a subway ride; they can monitor patient symptoms to their responses to neutral avatars. (For instance, if a patient is convinced one of the virtual characters is talking about him or her, it would indicate a high level of paranoia to the clinician.) Treatment could also be explored. Clinicians could demonstrate how medication affects a patient's experience by introducing them to the same situation off and on meds, giving them examples of how treatment is positive.


1: Rehabilitation

While we've looked at situations where virtual reality has been useful in a psychological context, it's also been found to have some therapeutic benefits when applied in patients requiring physical rehabilitation.

Stroke patients have been studied using virtual reality technologies to improve their muscle response after a neurological disability. Given a force-feedback glove (which is used to stimulate resistance), patients were given tasks to gain movement in their hands and fingers. Improvements were retained. Possibly, this has something to do with the motivation of a virtual environment. Most rehab is done in medical offices, and it's been suggested that virtual reality created a more engaging, interesting atmosphere to complete therapy.


Some virtual reality companies also tout the virtual world as a far more interesting place to engage in the often times painful and grueling atmosphere of physical rehabilitation. If you feel the need to get choked up today, cruise online for videos of kids with physical disabilities using virtual reality to play basketball or other sports. A child who uses a wheel chair, for instance, can experience the games without fear of injury. It's a super cool use of virtual reality, and it's not only therapy for the youngster: if you watch one of the videos, you'll probably have a feel-good experience to take with you for the rest of the day.

Lots More Information

Author's Note: 5 Therapeutic Ways to Use Virtual Reality

Virtual reality is pretty amazing: it's awesome for recreation, cool for communication. But it's also an extraordinarily effective tool for making therapeutic activities safe, specific and testable. As if you couldn't tell from the piece, there's not a lot more uplifting than seeing dramatically disabled children play realistically physical games in a virtual environment. While it might make sense to test phobia reactions in virtual reality, the idea of pain management and schizophrenia treatment is surprising. Clearly, there's still a lot of room for virtual reality to help therapeutic practice.

Related Articles

  • Bohil, Corey J, et al. "Virtual reality in neuroscience research and therapy." Nature.com. December 2011. (Sept. 20, 2012) http://www.pspc.unige.it/~mosip/Virtual_reality_in_neuroscience_research_and_therapy.pdf
  • Freeman, Daniel. "Studying and Treating Schizophrenia Using Virtual Reality: A New Paradigm." Schizophrenia Bulletin. July 2008. (Sept. 20, 2012) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2486455/
  • GestureTek Health.com. "Web site."(Sept. 20, 2012) http://www.gesturetekhealth.com/products-rehab.php
  • Hall, Joanna. "Virtual Therapy: How it works for you." Good Health. Nov. 3, 2010. (Sept. 20, 2012)
  • Hoffman, Hunter G. "Virtual-Reality Therapy." Scientific American. August 2004. (Sept. 20, 2012) http://www.hitl.washington.edu/research/vrpain/SCIAMFin.pdf
  • Knabe, Ann P. "From disturbing reality to virtual reality: doctors use VR therapy to help patients with PTSD confront their demons." The Officer. Sept-Oct 2010. (Sept. 20, 2012)
  • Rosencrance, Linda. "Virtual therapy: imagination trumps pain and phobias." ComputerWorld. March 14, 2005. (Sept. 20, 2012)
  • The Virtual Reality Medical Center. "Web site." 2011. (Sept 20, 2012) http://www.vrphobia.com/