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Mind Over Matter: How Virtual Reality Is Changing The Healthcare Game

August 27, 2016Posted by Wendy Joan Biddlecombe

Just a few years ago, virtual reality headsets were futuristic, space-age stuff.

Now, this immersive technology has transcended video games and is being used to help people as they recover from injuries, surgeries, pain and disease, and mental health disorders. 

The relative accessibility of virtual reality headsets like the Oculus Rift, which was released earlier this year, patients are now poised to receive interactive healthcare benefits.

Virtual reality is a computer-generated world that affects our bodies, minds and emotions. According to Howard Rose, CEO of DeepStream VR, a company that has been developing games for healing for the past 20 years, our brains remember these experiences much more vividly.

“It has a lot of potential, especially when it comes to mental health,” Rose said. “People come to me and say ‘what would you do for this?’ I have yet to find one condition where I think ‘gosh, I can’t do anything for that.’”

This specific technology Rose said, taps into our often “underplayed” potential to heal our own bodies and minds. “VR deals with the whole human and brings the body and mind connection back in a very measurable and tangible way,” Rose said.
Rush RoadHome's Charles Small demonstrates VR

Earlier this month, researchers at Duke University published a study that found virtual reality and exoskeleton robotics not only helped paraplegic patients regain some movement after mind training activities.

In the U.S., drug overdose deaths are on the rise, and an estimated 2.1 million people are addicted to prescription pain pills.

But what if patients who get a reconstructive surgery, such as a hip or knee replacement, are never written an opioid script in the first place?

Dr. Ted Jones with the Behavioral Medicine Institute at the Pain Consultants of East Tennessee, said he has conducted two clinical trials with a total of 64 patients using virtual reality sessions for pain relief. Jones said he used Cool!, a program developed by DeepStream VR.

Jones said that he found a 65 percent reduction in pain relief during the sessions (he said that morphine reduces pain by “30 percent at best”) and that 94 percent of participants had a reduction in pain.

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“What’s not to like?” Jones said. “The problem is that it is temporary. The effect lasts for one hour to two days after the session, but we’d all like it to last longer. And right now it’s still expensive—more than what pain patients can afford.”

Right now, insurance companies aren’t covering virtual reality, and Jones said part of the “next step” is to work toward widespread adoption.

As virtual reality has been shown to be effective for acute pain for 20 years, I’m not sure why it has not been adopted by inpatient or residential settings already,” Jones said.

Rose, CEO of Deepstream, describes Cool! as “taking a really deep breath.” The main action in the game is a journey through an interactive landscape, and playing paintball with otters.

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“We’re heavily reliant on drugs and not getting good outcomes,” said Rose, who went on to describe the experience of a veteran who suffers from neurological pain because he was exposed to sarin gas.

“He said ‘I felt high on VR and I never felt high from opioids.’ Opioids dull you out. We want to get people engaged rather than drugged out,’ Rose said.

The technology is also being used to treat veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) at clinics and VA hospitals across the county.

“Prolonged exposure therapy is the gold standard,” said Charles F. Small, a licensed clinical social worker with the Road Home Program at Rush University that works to help veterans to acclimate after deployment.

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They use VR to recreate the “sights, sounds, smells, and sensations” from the traumatic event using Bravemind, a program developed at the University of Southern California specifically for veterans suffering from PTSD.

Small said although it may seem counterintuitive to those not in the medical field, an important part of treating PTSD is confronting the traumatic experience head-on during exposure therapy. Virtual reality can help make the traumatic incident a lot more realistic for veterans.

“One response I get a lot when it comes to exposure therapy, people say ‘Why are you re-traumatizing vets?’ This is a misunderstanding of the mechanics of PTSD. It’s a tricky disorder,” Small said. “I’d like to see greater public awareness on why exposure therapy works the way that it does.”

Veterans who have served post 9/11 will be familiar with the 14 different scenarios in the game that The Road Home Program received the technology to work with last year.

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“Virtual reality therapy and prolonged exposure enhances what we are already doing in a session,” Small said. “It’s clear to us that virtual reality isn’t a be all end all, but a way to enhance prolonged exposure therapy.”

Small said the advantage of the new technology is for a veteran who is “emotionally underaged” and not easily connecting with their experience during a traditional talk therapy session.

“We might up the ante and consider something like virtual reality technology, because it’s a lot harder to avoid certain thoughts, memories and feelings when you’re fully immersed in the sensory experience,” Small said. “Studies have shown when vets undergo this, avoidance doesn’t have a place to flourish.”

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