How VR Can Help You Get Better Healthcare

From treating brain injuries to improving surgery

Key Takeaways

  • Doctors are increasingly turning to virtual reality to help treat patients with brain injuries. 
  • Games like Fruit Ninja can help paralyzed patients move muscles. 
  • Surgeons are also using VR to plan complex operations on the brain.
A patient wearing VR goggles while a healthcare professional takes notes with a computer monitor in the background.

Stevica Mrdja / EyeEm / Getty Images

Virtual reality (VR) is helping brain-injured patients recover from their injuries. 

At Allina Health's Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute in Minnesota, patients strap on headsets as part of their therapy. They play games like Fruit Ninja to help work muscles even when they are paralyzed. The program is an example of the growing use of VR to treat ailments ranging from PTSD to spinal cord injuries. 

"VR technology typically helps by allowing individuals to experience environments that may ordinarily cause discomfort, pain, anxiety or trauma in a way that is non-threatening or graded so that the viewer can more gently be introduced to the experience," Dr. David Putrino, the director of rehabilitation innovation for Mount Sinai Health System in New York, told Lifewire in an email interview. 

Brain-Body Connection

About 150 patients have undergone VR therapy at Courage Kenny. The program is expanding from two to 19 locations. A doctor at the institute said VR therapy stimulates nerve cells to regenerate by sending signals between the brain and muscles.

VR is used in other types of brain injury treatment, as well. Dr. Gavin Britz, head of the Houston Methodist Neurological Institute, and his team use VR technology regularly. 

"We can now preview complex brain surgery, plan it out ahead of time with the patient and the patient’s family and minimize collateral damage," he told Lifewire in an email interview. "VR has taken away much of the guessing game in neurosurgery."

VR is also used to teach younger surgeons how to operate on the brain. 

"It allows them to practice the surgery before even doing it," Britz said. "Surgery is like sport, a technical exercise, repetition, and training for the procedure will help in improving outcomes."

Soothing the Mind

Some of the earliest use of VR for rehabilitation was to help people overcome phobias, but it has since been used for chronic pain and PTSD, as well, Putrino said. It can also be used to present soothing environments to calm someone’s physiology down after an intense experience. 

"Environments of this nature have been used for burn patients (there is an environment called 'ice world' that provides a lot of relief) and for anxiety," he added. 

There’s increasing evidence that virtual reality can affect the way the brain functions. A recent study found that VR boosts brain activity that may be crucial for learning, memory, and even treating Alzheimer’s, ADHD, and depression.

After monitoring the brain activity of mice with electrodes, researchers from the University Of California Los Angeles discovered electrical activity in a region known as the hippocampus differed when the rodents were placed in real-world and virtual reality environments.

Virtual reality conceptual image of a person wearing VR goggles holding a brain formed of circuit board lights with binary code overlaying the background of a busy city at night.

AerialPerspective Images / Getty Images

Putrino said that there’s no specific model of VR headset that works best for therapy. 

"But the more you can immerse someone, the better, so using a comfortable, well-fitting headset that helps people to forget that they’re even wearing a headset is usually very helpful," he added.

"Similarly, creating believable graphics and natural-looking movement in the environments you present also goes a long way to helping to create an immersive and highly convincing experience."

New advances in VR technology could help patients even more than the current generation of headsets, Putrino said. Augmented reality headsets like the Magic Leap and Microsoft’s HoloLens that can overlay virtual experiences into the real world hold particular promise, he added. 

"They have the potential to really help us as therapists to close the gap between video games and reality, allowing patients to practice skills they are learning in the virtual world in a real-life and relevant environment," he said. 

Britz said that new VR techniques would also help advance the practice of neurosurgery. 

"From neuronavigation tools that pinpoint tumors and fibers in the brain to precision surgical tools that allow us to preplan, visualize, and form sound surgical strategies for highly complex surgeries," he added, "VR is truly the future of neurosurgery and has transformed what we can do in the operating room."

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