VR is a modern technology that gives person the feeling of being in another place using a special helmet and controllers. It is difficult to overestimate virtual reality as part of the game industry or as a multifunctional promotion tool. However, its application is not limited to these areas. Medicine is an area in which modern technologies are often used. A doctor work is associated with certain risks, and its transfer to the virtual space allows him to avoid them. These innovations are rare today, but one day hundreds of clinics around the world will use them.
Virtual reality for the multiple sclerosis diagnosis
Multiple sclerosis is a body condition when immunity is aimed at destroying the nervous system. Patients with such a diagnosis experience discomfort at first: numbness in the limbs and fatigue. Then develop mental impairments, coordination problems, and mood changes. If the disease is not treated, the patient loses the ability to perform everyday activities and has difficulty moving around.
The disease is difficult to identify at an early stage. However, with the help of VR, one of the main symptoms, imbalance, can be identified in a timely manner.
A special helmet is put on the patient’s head and he has to walk on the run track. At this time, an image appears in front of a person’s eyes, its movement speed is related to the walking speed. Then the picture simulates a fall. The patient’s body tries to avoid it and reacts to a “change in position in space”. Based on this reaction, doctors draw conclusions about how impaired the coordination of movements is and whether treatment is needed.
Early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s
The most common cause of old-age dementia is Alzheimer’s disease. It usually develops in people over the age of 60 and affects their brains. Patients with such a diagnosis experience difficulties in performing ordinary household tasks, gradually losing their memory. It becomes difficult for them to write, speak, and their personality changes due to illness. Older people with Alzheimer’s need care and supportive therapy to improve their quality of life.
The sooner doctors identify the disease and begin treatment, the more favorable the prognosis will be. Research is carried out in two directions: the search for effective therapeutic methods and ways of early diagnosis.
The use of virtual reality in this area turned out to be more effective than standard medical tests, which are based on the cognitive method. Scientists at a university in London have developed a new technique based on John O’Keefe research. It was aimed at finding out how the brain determines how the body is located in space. It is the brain segment responsible for this function that suffers among the first in patients with Alzheimer’s. Before O’Keefe’s scientific breakthrough, scientists could not identify this area damage.
Doctors conduct the study using conventional VR equipment: a helmet and its control system. The patient in helmet must complete a series of tasks that appear on the screen. The tasks are selected in such a way that a person with an impaired “internal map of the area” will have difficulty in completing them. People with Alzheimer’s disease face this problem earlier than memory impairment. So the disease is identified at the earliest stage, when it does not yet greatly complicate the patient’s life.
Virtual reality and Parkinson’s disease
Like people with multiple sclerosis, patients with Parkinson’s disease often lose balance, resulting in bruises and fractures. The disease affects the functioning of their brains, causing such symptoms: limbs tremors, slowness of movements and decreased muscle flexibility. People with this diagnosis have difficulty moving on uneven area and any obstacle can cause a fall.
Doctors at the University of Utah have invented a method that helps patients to cope with illness without the risk of injury. Patients train on a special run track that changes the angle of incline and pace of movement. In this case, a person sees a wall in front of him, onto which a virtual environment is transferred with the help of a projector. A person sees the obstacles that he has to overcome right now: a slide, a staircase or a low grade. The system itself determines the level of the patient’s capabilities and offers him the appropriate tasks.
The simulator will not cure the disease, but it helps to keep the muscles up. Patients like this exercise: even the elderly perceive it as a fun game. What is remarkable, while training, they are completely protected from falls and injuries by the simulator safety system. Doctors who used this technique to rehabilitate their patients note: after 2-3 months, patients’ coordination significantly improves. In the future, scientists plan to adapt the system to a virtual reality helmet.
VR as a cure for chronic pain
Chronic pain is a rather vague concept, because the source of unpleasant sensations can be different. The effectiveness of treatment also depends on it. But there is a condition in which even light touches or muscle actions cause acute pain. This is allodynia. It is much more difficult to treat it than other similar pathologies. In 2020, scientists have developed a technique that can help patients with such a diagnosis.
People are placed in VR with the help of a comfortable helmet. So they can watch a model of an affected limb blinking in time with the heart beats. The brain receives feedback, but the patient does not experience pain. The method was called HEVR therapy and is most effective when medication is used. Doctors believe that in the future it will be possible to use it for the treatment of people with other chronic pain, as well as for the rehabilitation of patients after legs and arms amputation or a stroke.
VR for aspiring surgeons training
Young surgeons need to constantly practice, but it is undesirable to do it on patients without proper experience. Therefore, 16 clinics in the United States use Osso VR, a technique that allows doctors to practice not on humans, but on very realistic virtual models. The program also evaluates the surgeon’s actions according to several criteria: the accuracy and speed of movements, the decision-making speed and the correctness of the sequence of actions. The system monitors the doctor actions, and at the end of the lesson it issues a verdict: is it possible for him to work with real patients, or should he continue to practice in virtual reality.
Research results have shown that young surgeons who have polished up their skills with the Osso VR are 3 times better at work tasks. This training method is also suitable for their more experienced colleagues who want to master new surgery methods. Today, the main area of system usage is spinal and orthopedic surgery. In the future, it will be possible to simulate the heart, lungs and other vital organs surgeries. Young doctors willingly join the program, whose goal is to work effectively for the benefit of their patients.
Virtual reality as a surgery planning tool
Another unusual way of applying innovative technologies in everyday medical practice was found by surgeons from the American Family Children’s Hospital, built in honor of St. Joseph. After downloading the CT and MRI results of their little patient to a computer, they design a virtual body model. The technology that allows them to do this was borrowed from the US military. Wearing a VR helmet, surgeons work out a surgery plan in a computer simulation. So they can familiarize themselves in advance with the body features of the patient, because the 3D copy of the child’s body is as close as possible to the original.
Before performing an operation on a person, surgeons try different approaches on the model and thus choose the optimal one. Also, the doctor can show the patient and his family what procedures he plans to use. This helps to reduce patient’s anxiety and fear. Neurologists and cardiologists at the hospital use the technique today, but the developers of virtual reality equipment also appreciated it. Their development – the famous da Vinci robots – also supports the use of a human body model that can be viewed before surgery and during the procedure.
Where are VR technologies used in treatment?
This technology is not widely used. It is just beginning to be implemented in developed countries such as the USA or Great Britain. But it is there that the prices for medical care are much higher, so it is more profitable for tourists to travel to the countries of the Middle East, Asia or Europe for health improvement. Virtual reality is also used in therapy, but the procedures are cheaper.
Assuta Israel Medical Center specializes in the neurology treatment, including Parkinson’s disease, various phobias, post-traumatic stress disorder and other diseases. The clinic is famous for its unique diagnostic system based on virtual tools.
The Cereneo rehabilitation center works in Switzerland. There patients with neurological diseases can be treated using modern technologies. Thanks to VR, limb mobility returns to them, speech and thinking skills are restored.
The HELIOS network of German clinics trains their doctors using VR technology. The efficiency of young specialists’ work is growing based on such training approach. Today it is much higher than the national average.
South Korean doctors also actively use VR. Severance Hospital successfully treats psychiatric disorders using this modern technology. These include panic disorder, ADHD, and PTSD. Various virtual reality tools are also used to reduce anxiety in children before operation. Their use reduces stress by 40%.
Today, large medical and research centers are actively adopting VR technologies. Supportive therapy is more effective by using software specifically designed for patients. People who complain of pain, the limbs weakness or have mental illnesses recover faster. Patients with incurable illnesses can live full-quality life if they exercise regularly. Virtual reality also helps in recovery from surgeries and injuries.
Doctors all over the world are mastering the technology, it helps them to learn how to perform complex operations. Today, VR is used to treat patients in the USA, Germany, Great Britain, South Korea, Switzerland and Israel. This means that in the future, such methods will become more widespread.