Virtual reality (VR) tools are helping people achieve real outcomes for their rehabilitation and recovery.
Practitioners from a range of health backgrounds are using this digital tool as part of therapy and treatment.
This includes psychology, in hospital settings, injury prevention and recovery, pain management, health and safety and neurology.
During the final week of National Safe Work Month, we’re looking at how virtual reality and similar technologies are being used to help treat psychological injury.
VR tools have been cited as a supporting tool for injury prevention and recovery as far back as 2008, with significant development in its use since then.
Today, this digital tool is supporting real-world results.
Can virtual reality (really) be used as a clinical tool?
When we think of VR, we often think of gaming before we think of it in the context of therapy.
The technology can be used to create a simulated environment which can be used to treat a range of issues and conditions such as:
- Substance use disorder
- Traumatic brain injury, including stroke
- Spinal cord rehabilitation
The impacts of the distancing and isolation imposed by COVID-19 accelerated the adoption of telehealth and digital technologies, to better meet mental health needs.
The need for equitable, effective, and timely treatment for mental health issues is as present as ever.
According to Mohr et al, 75% of primary care patients with depression encounter barriers which interfere with, or prevent, their access to psychological care.
This rate increases considerably when patients live in rural areas, and for remote workers alike.
The cost of VR technology was an initial limitation for wider customer uptake, it is just one of a few options, which can also include face-to-face sessions and video consultations.
As clinical outcomes are more widely seen and proven, affordability, uptake and accessibility will continue to improve.
Why is it used to treat psychological injury?
Safe Work Australia define a psychological injury (or mental injury) as an injury with cognitive, emotional and behavioural symptoms that interfere with a worker’s life and can significantly affect how they feel, think, behave and interact with others.
Psychological injury may include such disorders as depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder.
Virtual reality technology enables treating professionals to create a safe, controlled environment or situation for the client.
This is especially good for people with PTSD, anxiety, social phobias, have limited mobility or living with injury, illness or disability.
VR technology is not limited to visual stimuli either – it can include audio and tactile feedback (vibration) for different levels of immersion.
For people who are undergoing any kind of exposure therapy for anxiety for example – e.g. revisiting memories, places or situations – they can do so in a safe, quicker and more cost effective way through a VR headset.
How can it be used to treat psychological injury?
Treating professionals will determine who is a good candidate to benefit from the use of VR as part of their wider treatment plan, which can include medication, physical therapy, and other psychological treatments.
For treating professionals, VR can be used to control the intensity of the client’s experience during therapy – gradual exposure through to full immersion.
Firstly, VR can be used as an alternative to face-to-face and video appointments in the talk therapy environment.
Interestingly, a study by an Australian researcher Dr Shiva Pedram found some people can feel more comfortable talking about their problems to an avatar over a real person because it makes them feel less judged.
Secondly, for someone who lives with PTSD like former veterans, they can revisit a particular situation such as the place where their injury occurred, which is otherwise unable to be replicated for effective exposure therapy.
A 2012 study found VR exposure therapy (VRET) helped significantly reduce the symptoms of PTSD for participants.
Therapist-led immersion can be designed to trigger certain symptoms or reactions so the treating professional and client can work through the reaction together during a session.
Utilising VR as part of a treatment plan can have benefits, including:
- Reduced symptoms of PTSD, anxiety and depression
- A personalised therapy experience, based on your needs
- Exposure to triggers in a safe, controlled, computer-generated environment, led by or in conjunction with a therapist
- Improved engagement with therapy, mental health professionals and treating professionals
- Patients can retain their sense of control
- Lower cost of travel for remote patients
- Computer generated exposure or immersion is cheaper than the real-world alternatives
Find out more
Talk to one of our consultants today to see if virtual reality could be an effective rehabilitation and recovery tool for your business.
- Validation of virtual reality as a tool to understand and prevent child pedestrian injury – David Schwebel, Joanna Gaines and Joan Severson.
- What is the impact of engaging with natural environments delivered via virtual reality on the psycho-emotional health of people with spinal cord injury receiving rehabilitation in hospital? Findings from a pilot randomized controlled trial – Ali Lakhani, Kate Martin, Lyndal Gray, Jesscia Mallison, Peter Grimbeek, Izak Hollins and Col Mackareth.
- Are Australian mental health services ready for therapeutic virtual reality? An investigation of knowledge, attitudes, implementation barriers and enablers – Olivia S. Chung, Alisha M. Johnson, Nathan L. Dowling, Tracy Robinson, Chee H. Ng, Murat Yücel and Rebecca A. Segrave.
- Perceived barriers to psychological treatments and their relationship to depression – David C. Mohr, Joyce Ho, Jenna Duffecy, Kelly G. Baron, Kenneth A. Lehman, Ling Jin and Douglas Reifler.
- Examining the potential of virtual reality to deliver remote rehabilitation – Shiva Pedram, Stephen Palmisano, Pascal Perez, Rebecca Mursic and Matthew Farrelly.
- Fact sheet: Workers’ compensation legislation and psychological injury – Work Safe Australia
- Virtual reality might be the next big thing for mental health – Scientific American
- Efficacy of virtual reality exposure therapy in the treatment of PTSD: A systematic review – Raquel Gonçalves, Ana Lúcia Pedrozo, Evandro Silva Freire Coutinho, Ivan Figueira and Paula Ventura.
- Benefits of virtual reality therapy – Holland and Barrett