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How VR gaming technology is changing the medical world

Mar 14, 2018, 8:30 am

Virtual reality (VR) came into the public consciousness back in the early 1990s with the release of Sega’s headsets for arcade games and the Mega Drive. Since then, VR has come a long way and is no longer confined to gaming. It has infiltrated a number of different industries from the military to tourism, automotive manufacturers and onto the health sector. VR is changing the way we learn, work, interact and maintain our health.

Here we take a look at the health sector, often early adopters of technology, to find out how VR is being used to provide better health outcomes for a variety of patients.

Practicing Surgery With VR

Over the past three years, neurosurgeons at the University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA) have been using haptic technology with Oculus Rift VR gaming headsets to plan, practice and improve brain surgeries. By taking computed tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans of patient’s brains they’re able to create a virtual 3D image which they can analyze and examine in full detail. Operating on tumors, cavernous malformation or performing deep brain stimulation can be performed in VR before lifting a scalpel.

Surgeons using VR obtain superior situational awareness and navigation capabilities before ever physically entering the patient’s brain. With this increased awareness, surgeons are able to reduce the damage surgery which can cause such a sensitive organ.

The benefits Virtual Reality in clinical practice go beyond surgery. Patients are able to discuss their treatment in detail and see what is being proposed for their treatment before submitting to a procedure. It also enables medical students and others to virtually practice surgery for themselves from a neurosurgeon’s point of view.

UCLA is just one of the hospitals across the world using VR to enhance brain and other types of surgeries.

Virtual Pain Relief

Opioids are often used for pain relief in hospitals for severe and chronic pain. Despite the risks associated with these drugs, up until recently there have been few alternatives available.

One of the most painful conditions to treat is severe burns. While patients are resting, opioids are adequate for pain management, however, it is the wound care that causes the most distress. The necessary but extremely painful changing of bandages wound cleaning, and debridement results in excruciating pain that even opioids can’t ease.

A team based at Harborview Burn Centre in Seattle has been working to address the issues of pain for burn patients with VR. Use of the VR program ‘SnowWorld’ developed at the University of Washington HIT Lab in collaboration with Harborview Burn Center has shown some encouraging results. Although the test group was initially quite small (just two patients), the reduction in pain they reported has resulted in funding for multi-site clinical trials on pediatric burn patients.

While the use of VR for pain management is relatively new, the results are encouraging researchers to begin looking into uses for treating chronic pain and pain caused by other conditions.

Rehabilitation with VR

Recovering from a stroke or other accident which affects mobility can be a long and arduous journey. VR is now being incorporated into rehabilitation therapies to help people regain control of their bodies. VR aids the process as the control systems for the devices relies on body movements for the patient to navigate through a virtual world during their session.

A study of stroke patients found that use of VR in their rehabilitation increased arm and hand movements faster than conventional therapies. One of the reasons this is thought to happen is that the virtual worlds provide a safer space for patients to practice their mobility skills, allowing them to build confidence in a virtual world before trying the same movements in the real world. Additionally, patients are more likely to engage in their rehabilitation exercises for longer and with more frequency because of the gamification or fun factor of the therapy.

Surgery, pain relief, and rehabilitation are just three areas showing successful results from the application of VR. Training medical staff, treating fears and phobias, and helping amputees with phantom limb pain are also showing successful outcomes for VR use. Once the sole realm of hardcore gamers, VR has certainly found its place in the future of medicine.

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