Smart Medicine and Virtual Reality – Use Cases
Virtual reality (VR) – the creation of immersive, computer-generated environments so convincing that they feel like the real thing — isn’t just for video games and escapism. It is also changing the way that doctors work and greatly improving patients’ lives. Here are five examples of how VR is making medicine smarter.
• Curing phobias and PTSD
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How it works
Facing your fears is the best way to overcome a phobia. But for people who are deathly afraid of spiders, needles, flying — anything for that matter — the thought of such “exposure therapy” can make treatment unbearable. That’s where VR comes in. Instead of having to repeatedly fondle arachnids or board a plane, patients can instead tackle their fears from the comfort of their own home, or a doctor’s office. Virtual scenarios can be adjusted precisely for the needs of each patient. This approach is being used to not only deal with phobias but also to help people recover from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
• Reducing chronic pain
More than 25 million Americans experience chronic pain, and many turn to opioids for relief. The drug-centric approach to treating pain has failed miserably, fueling the opioid epidemic that claims nearly 100 lives a day. Doctors desperate to offer alternatives to their patients may have found a solution with VR. One study showed that patients who donned VR goggles and spent five minutes exploring a fantasy landscape with “trees, hills, snow scenes, caves, flames, and otters” experienced a 60 percent drop in pain levels. Even after they took the glasses off, their pain was still down by a third, roughly equivalent to a dose of morphine.
• Speeding up recovery after stroke
For patients who survive a stroke or traumatic brain injury, rehabilitation can be a long and arduous process that entails practicing continuous, repetitive movements to retrain the brain. If patients don’t stick with the program, they are less likely to regain lost functions, like the use of a limb. A neurogaming company called MindMaze has created a virtual reality treatment that can make rehab more enjoyable for stroke recovery patients. As patients participate in a series of interactive exercises, electrodes on their heads track their movements and project them onto 3D avatars. The machine monitors each patient’s progress, and sends the data back to their health care provider.
• Restoring low vision
Approximately 246 million people worldwide suffer from vision loss, which includes blurry vision, tunnel vision, or blind spots that can’t be corrected. Several different VR technologies are currently under development that could help restore their sight. For example, Frank Werblin, a neuroscientist who has spent his career studying the way the retina functions, recently invented a low vision aid called Iris Vision. The technology uses a VR headset combined with software uploaded to a smartphone. These glasses snap pictures of text, objects, people – whatever the wearers are directly looking at – and then magnify them right before their eyes.
• Planning complicated surgeries
Today, doctors are attempting more complex surgeries than ever before: separating conjoined twins, removing previously inoperable tumors, even repairing heart defects in babies while they are still in their mother’s womb. VR is helping surgeons anticipate the unique challenges of these procedures and work out ways to overcome them. For example, a tech startup called Surgical Theater combines imaging from MRIs, CT scans, and angiograms to create a 3D model of what is going on inside a patient’s skull. Using this model and flight simulation technology, the neurosurgeons can train for an upcoming procedure, rehearsing complicated maneuvers before they step into the operating room.