In a recent article we considered how virtual reality (VR) technology was becoming increasingly available to help those suffering chronic pain. This follows the almost accidental discovery of the therapeutic benefits of VR by those using the technology for video gaming. Our article highlighted applications developed by two of an increasing number of companies, most based in the US.
Now, a group of researchers in the UK, working in conjunction with clinical staff at Sandwell and West Birmingham Hospitals NHS Trust, have designed and built a VR application for use by the NHS in the treatment of CRPS and painful musculoskeletal conditions. The group, led by Dr Andrew Wilson from Birmingham City University, presented its findings to the 12th European Conference on Game Based Learning.
Named iVRT, the application uses a headset and controllers to immerse the user in an interactive game, designed to mimic the processes used in traditional mirror therapy, a form of graded motor imagery. The game both consciously and subconsciously encourages the user to move, position and stretch the affected limb(s).
Dr Wilson, an associate professor and programme leader for the University’s degree course in computer games technology, has a special interest in the application of technology to support issues relating to healthcare. His current research includes a study into how VR games can encourage more physical activity, and how movement science in virtual worlds can be used for both rehabilitation and to encourage patients to adhere to treatment programmes. In relation to the iVRT application, he explained:
“The first part of the CRPS project was to examine the feasibility of being able to create a game which reflects the rehabilitation exercises that the clinical teams use on the ground to reduce pain and improve mobility in specific patients.
“By making the game enjoyable and playable we hope family members will play too and in doing so encourage the patient to continue with their rehabilitation. Our early research has shown that in healthy volunteers both regular and casual gamers enjoyed the game which is promising in terms of our theory surrounding how we may support treatment adherence by exploiting involvement of family and friends in the therapy processes.”
Andrea Quadling, a senior occupational therapist at Sandwell Hospital, said “The concept of using virtual reality to treat complex pain conditions is exciting, appealing and shows a lot of potential. This software has the potential to be very helpful in offering additional treatment options for people who suffer with CRPS.”
It is hoped that VR technology will in due course become routine in the UK in the treatment of CRPS and other conditions. Indeed, at different centres around the world, VR is helping people suffering conditions as diverse as post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder and early-stage dementia.