Virtual reality’s place in Physiotherapy

March 18, 2022 by Marketing Associate


It sounds like a weird mix at first, but with the increased advancements of virtual reality and its technological developments, it’s becoming a more practical tool in most industries. More and more evidence shows the positive impact VR (virtual reality) has paired with a clinical application of physiotherapy.



What is virtual reality? 

Virtual reality is the technology that extends aspects of reality to a virtually simulated world. Elements like visual and physical movement can interact with the world in a virtual. Using computer technology to create a simulated environment.VR places the user inside an experience. Instead of viewing a screen in front of them, users are immersed and able to interact with 3D worlds. By simulating as many senses as possible, such as vision, hearing, touch, and even smell. The only limits to near-real VR experiences are the availability of content and cheap computing power.


How does virtual reality benefit physiotherapy?

Virtual reality is having more and more impact in most industries somehow, and the clinical application has been tested and trialled with certain patients in mind. People who have physical injuries & cognitive issues that impede engaging with common rehabilitation exercises can see a major benefit from using VR application in their physiotherapy treatment.

The answer is your brain – Virtual reality mimics realistic senses that your brain processes while experiencing full virtual emersion in a digital environment; depending on how that application is used in a clinical sense, there are beneficial possibilities that could otherwise be harder to achieve outside of a virtual environment for some.

A good example of this working in practice outside of virtual reality is , the rubber hand illusion. The rubber hand illusion is a psychological test experiment used to trick the brain into thinking a rubber hand is your real hand. – The illusion comes on when the real and fake hands are stroked simultaneously for a minute or two. In combining the visual information with the touch sensations, the brain mistakenly thinks that the rubber hand must be your real hand, weird right? The rubber hand illusion can be useful in upper limb amputees facing phantom pains after going through amputation – this is done by simultaneously touching the stump and the finger of the prosthesis.

This is the same for virtual reality but not only with a single hand since virtual reality is an immersive experience of your full body. APA ( Australian Physiotherapy Association ) made a Media Release on Dec 01 2021 – “Physio uses innovative VR therapy to alleviate pain”.

– “Newly invented treatment was developed by the Australian Physiotherapy Association (APA) Pain Physiotherapist and Menzies Health Institute Queensland researcher Dr Daniel Harvie, who has focused on changing the brain’s perception of the body. VR Body Image Training (VRBiT), puts people inside athletic avatars (virtual bodies) and directs them to do physical tasks, temporarily swapping their real bodies for a completely new one. An initial case study showed a participant suffering from debilitating chronic back pain, which a physiotherapist guided to embody each avatar by acting out their super-human characters. By flexing ‘Incredible Hulks’ muscles, hitting a virtual punching bag as a professional boxer, and scaling a virtual cliff as a rock climber encouraged the patient’s brain to re-learn to trust the body.”

A statement in the APA’s media release from Menzies Health Institute Queensland researcher Dr Daniel Harvie’s findings stated the following on his findings –

“The virtual body really feels like your own body because when there’s a perfect match between what your real body is doing, and what your virtual body is doing, the brain starts to accept the virtual body as its own,” Dr Harvie said.

“Because you feel like it is your body, if the virtual body is strong and capable, then this is also how you feel. Our invention targets the brain’s impression of the body as ‘weak and injured’ and help it to re-learn to trust the body as ‘strong and capable’ and ultimately have less pain.

“After four weeks, the participant showed clinically meaningful changes in body image, pain, disability and self-efficacy. Of course, we can’t be sure if the improvements were due to the therapy because it was only a case study.



Examples of VR & Physiotherapy being beneficial

Unlike conventional equipment, VR devices employ enjoyable games, increase concentration, and result in continuing treatment by the patient based on their overall enjoyment using virtual reality. Stimulating multiple senses simultaneously could increase the effectiveness of rehabilitation and help treat patients with visual vertigo, among other conditions.

In practice, virtual reality in physiotherapy has been used on a focused scale. In April 2020 – International Journal of Online and Biomedical Engineering conducted VR exercise study “Adaptive Virtual Reality-Based Serious Game for Therapeutic Rehabilitation” was conducted on elderly women above 65 who were exposed to rehabilitation three times a week for eight weeks. It had been observed that mental health, emotional strength had increased along with physical fitness.

In a separate case, Singh et al. designed VR balance games to decrease the risk and fear of falls among women. A test had been conducted among women with VR games and with conventional methods. It was studied that practising VR balance games increases balance confidence and decreases the risk of falls among women. These virtual reality platforms that are created is capable of assisting rehabilitation therapy. It promotes repetition of the exercise, task-oriented training, appropriate feedback and a motivating environment.

It’s not only beneficial to patients either; physiotherapists who have used virtual reality in combination with their treatments found a higher recovery rate on average. How is this possible?

With digital clinical VR technologies & software, patient session data is tracked, which is amazing for recovery insights and focus areas. Another example is prescribed at-home exercises, people are more likely to complete their at-home exercise plan if it does not feel like exercise at all! With virtual reality, therapy becomes gamified and more of an engaging experience than traditional therapy methods.


Is VR physiotherapy treatment for you?

Although clinical physiotherapy treatment in virtual reality looks like it would be for everyone, there are some drawbacks, as VR technology is on the rise currently in 2022 – VR focused therapy isn’t obtainable for most Physiotherapy clinics as of today. Even though the findings from research case studies have been quite promising, the total cost for a genal clinic to implement the service would still be a huge expense.

But the idea of VR physiotherapy is a developing service, and we should see more & advancements in the Allied health industry where virtual reality is put to good use. However, for us at Greenwood Physio, we are still treating the old-fashioned way, but we believe in innovation here, so our team is looking forward to the exciting possibilities.

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