How Virtual Reality Technology is Changing Physical Therapy

Virtual reality (VR) isn’t just for video gamers anymore. Advancements in technology, improved affordability, and creative uses have expanded virtual reality into the health care and physical therapy markets.

Physical therapy is a necessary evil when rehabilitating post-injury or surgery. Patients should make regular visits to the in-person therapy clinic and do exercise programs at home. However, research suggests that less than 35% of patients adhere to their at-home regimen. It’s time intensive, can be expensive, and to put it bluntly—it’s mundane.

Enter VR. With VR programs available to support physical therapy, patients can do more from home and medical professionals are able to provide adaptable, more effective treatment and rehab plans.  Patients are also finding out that physical therapy can be fun.

Increased Data & Accountability

Physicians and physical therapists with patients participating in VR physical therapy are better able to track if their patient is performing their programs at home, increasing patient accountability. Some VR programs capture analytical data on therapy sessions, both in the facility and at the patient’s home. This information tells care providers whether the patient is performing the exercises and whether they are showing improvement. The analytical data can also assist doctors with determining if the patient is ready to progress to more difficult exercises or if they’ve improved enough to return to normal physical activities.

Dr. Lev Kalika, a New York-based therapist, uses VR to treat patients with back pain and walking disorders as well as orthopedic and neurological issues. Kalika uses a virtual environment to speed up the learning process as patients work to replace previous movement strategies with new techniques. Specialists at Northeastern University use VR for improving motor learning and for assisting children with disabilities better engage with physical therapy tasks.

Making Physical Therapy Fun

Let’s not forget the ever-looming issue of physical therapy being quite dull and boring. VR tackles that very issue with the “gamification” of treatment. Instead of simply completing repetitive treatment exercises in the setting of a clinic or at home in the living room, patients now have the opportunity to turn their exercises into games.

In VR treatment games, whiplash victims try to fill barrels with water as they move and rotate their neck; individuals recovering from ankle surgery do balance games on a virtual tightrope; and patients with wrist overuse injuries try to pop balloons with a sword. While the patients are playing their therapeutic “games”, therapists are collecting valuable data on what positions still cause pain, areas for improvements, and adapting the rehabilitation plan accordingly.

The Future

The future of VR in medicine, particularly in health therapy, is bright.

VR programs may soon play a role in preventative medicine, including warm up routines for athletes, virtual personal training sessions, and strength building “games” to prevent injuries before they happen—particularly repetitive use related conditions like carpal tunnel and tendonitis.

Progress is being made in therapies targeted for stroke recovery, assisting with fine motor skill tuning and beyond. Studies demonstrated that patients who took part in VR therapy experienced an increase in strength and were also able to increase their cognitive abilities.

Though this new, cutting-edge technology offers legitimate treatment options, the odds that insurance companies will embrace covering it is unlikely. Why may this be the case? Though Americans are paying higher deductibles, insurance companies are covering fewer treatment options.

NWPC’s care extends beyond our clinics and we’re more than willing to assist in coordinating with NW Therapy, home health agencies, and other community-based services, to meet all your needs.