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VR is being used to treat everything from anxiety and phobias to chronic pain

10 Apr 2019

Virtual reality isn’t just something out of “Total Recall” or “The Matrix” anymore. In recent years, the computerized simulation technology is being used to treat everything from anxiety about an upcoming surgery to chronic pain.

Here’s a look at some of the innovative ways VR is being used in healthcare both in Canada and abroad.

Treating Chronic Pain

Virtual reality can provide a distraction from the day-to-day stress of the real world, but can it also provide a relief from chronic pain?

It’s something researchers at The University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University are currently looking into.

According to Statistics Canada, 19 per cent of the Canadian population suffers from chronic pain, but traditional treatments of medication are not always successful.

A recent article in The Globe and Mail highlighted how the Pain Studies Lab at Simon Fraser University is studying whether VR can help treat chronic pain in cancer patients alongside medication and other treatments.

Participants were asked to use an at-home VR simulator for half an hour a day for six days a week. Results were promising with some patients reporting their pain completely disappearing during the activity.

Lead investigator Dr. Bernie Garrett told The Globe and Mail he believes since the brain moderates pain, immersing in VR could distract the brain from the pain. He cautions though that it’s not for everyone and only certain experiences (such as meditation or problem solving activities) are effective.

Reducing Preoperative Anxiety

Feeling nervous before an upcoming surgery is not uncommon but researchers at the University of Toronto created a VR experience to help ease some of this anxiety.

Fahad Alam and Clyde Matava, Department of Anaesthesia professors, created the Collaborative Human Immersive and Interactive Lab (CHISIL) to help educate patients on the surgical procedure they’re about to undergo as well as what to expect the day of.

The experience is currently being offered at Sunnybrook and SickKids hospitals in Toronto, but mobile VR units are available and ways of offering the experience from home is also being explored.

This is the first lab of its kind in Canada, according to the University of Toronto, and early feedback of patients who have used the VR experience has been positive.

Overcoming Phobias

Can pretending to be on top of a tall building or on an airplane help someone overcome an actual fear of heights or flying?

Researchers think so and are pouring plenty of resources into the VR landscape to prove it, The Associated Press reports.

By putting on VR goggles, patients can walk out on a high-rise ledge or be thousands of feet in the air on a plane all in the comfort of a therapist’s office.

Studies have shown VR can help reduce anxiety as much as using traditional methods such as exposure therapy, where patients are gradually exposed to the experience they fear in the real world.

For the UK’s Dick Tracey, who took part in a VR study with an animated virtual coach, he was able to turn his crippling fear of heights into being able to park his car on the upper levels of a parking garage and being able to stand on his flat top roof to clean his carport.

“I would never have dreamed of doing that before,” Tracey told The Associated Press. “I now know how much the fear of heights restricted my everyday life.”

 

Links

https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/82-003-x/2018003/article/54921-eng.htm

https://www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/british-columbia/article-virtual-reality-shows-new-promise-for-treating-chronic-pain-bc/

https://painstudieslab.com/about/

https://medicine.utoronto.ca/news/virtual-reality-not-just-gamers-anymore

https://www.apnews.com/35ba06aa00784732969b5ad161e43a3c 

https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanpsy/article/PIIS2215-0366(18)30226-8/fulltext


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