Unbound virtual reality

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Medical application of virtual reality (VR)

Doctors use VR to solve the most challenging medical problems

In 2021, virtual reality is no longer just about playing games. The influence and technology of VR cannot be ignored from, for example, product design, real estate and other industries. Yet nowhere are the benefits of virtual reality more evident than in the medical world.

"We see more and more applications here with VR technology, virtual reality has reached a tipping point in medicine." - Dr. Sachdeva, Director of Education, American College of Surgeons.

The benefits of VR are being experienced in various fields within medicine. Psychologists are using it successfully in treating post-traumatic stress disorder, but stroke specialists, surgeons and other doctors have discovered in their own ways how VR improves their treatments. Sometimes the well-known headsets are used, other times they use 3D glasses or special video screens that give a VR-like experience.

The use of virtual reality or 3D visualizing technology is of course not new. 3D models of, for example, patients' organs have been used since the 1990s. But advances in computers mean that images can be made much more realistic - and much faster.

X-rays, CT and MRI scans can now be converted into high-resolution 3D images within a minute, according to Sergio Agirre, CTO of EchoPixel. The visualization software of this company is used in hospitals worldwide "Twenty years ago something like that would take perhaps a week."

VR for complex operations

Some surgical procedures, such as removal of a caecum or caesarean section, can be done fairly routinely - some are very similar. But other complicated procedures, such as separating conjoined twins, present challenges that require careful planning. Especially for these kinds of challenging interventions, 3D visualization proves its enormous value.

Recently, VR played an important role in the successful separation of conjoined twins. At the Masonic Children's Hospital in Minneapolis, USA, there were three-month-old twins that had grown together in a much more complicated way than others, with intricate connections between heart and liver. Operating and separating these twins was obviously very difficult and even dangerous for the twins.

Before the operation, the medical teams performed all possible scans that allowed for a detailed virtual model of the twins' bodies. In that virtual model, the doctors could look 'inside' the organs and estimate well in advance what the possibilities and dangers would be during the operation.

"You look through the VR glasses and can virtually walk through the structure and therefore see exactly what you need during the execution of the operation."

VR technology is also used by vascular specialists. Using interactive 3D visualisations, surgeons can prepare well for procedures such as treating an aneurysm or blocked veins. One of the advantages is that it is already possible to estimate well in advance which measures and actions will yield the best results.

VR for pain and fear

Where doctors use VR equipment, so do patients. For example, they use headsets to immerse themselves in a virtual world that helps them focus on issues other than medical problems and treatments.

Because anesthesia or anesthesia can pose risks for some patients, more and more hospitals VR are offering headsets to their patients to help control pain during less severe procedures. At the moment this is still experimental, but the results are still positive.

Similarly, VR has been shown to help reduce anxiety in cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy. Likewise in children, where it helps to reduce anxiety from stinging or other treatments.

Burn patients may benefit most from VR technology. Daily cleaning and wrapping of burns or performing skin grafts are some of the most painful procedures. Pain medication helps, but often not enough.

The VR game "SnowWorld" has been developed for these patients. Dr. Hunter Hoffman, a scientist at the University of Washington with expertise in the use of VR for pain relief, said, "This game contains images specifically designed to distract burn patients from their pain." People who play this game during treatment have up to 50% less pain, according to research. Other research shows that playing this game shows changes in the brain of patients that indicate that they experience less pain.

The VR game SnowWorld developed by Hoffmann is currently being tested in four locations in the United States and in two other countries. Although VR should not be seen as a replacement for pain relief, the developers do believe that medication and VR combined can be extremely effective. Also in the Netherlands there is plenty of experimentation with pain relief by VR. Medical organizations such as the Radboudumc and the burns center of the Martini Hospital use VR glasses and are researching the application of VR in pain relief during endoscopic examinations and procedures. The first indications of this study show that indeed less sedation is required in patients who use VR glasses.

VR for rehabilitation

Virtual reality also helps patients who struggle with balance and mobility problems as a result of brain haemorrhage or head wounds.

A new European consortium, led by the Sint Maartenskliniek, will receive € 2.4 million for the development of Virtual Reality (VR) applications in rehabilitation processes. The Interreg North-West Europe program has awarded funding for the so-called VR4REHAB project. Dit project zal de komende drie jaar bedrijven, universiteiten en revalidatieklinieken bij elkaar brengen om VR-toepassingen te ontwikkelen en onderzoeken, die revalidatiebehandelingen verbeteren en het herstelproces versnellen.


"By means of VR I can check what is happening around a patient and know what influences the patients' ability to change". - Emily Keshner, professor of physical therapy at Temple University in Philadelphia.

Research shows that the use of VR in rehabilitation speeds up the process considerably. Patients are more likely to regain their physical skills. The first results can be called very positive. A study in people who had a brain haemorrhage showed that the use of VR led to better arm and hand movement after four weeks of therapy. After two months, these patients also showed better mobility. Other studies in patients with cerebral palsy showed similar better outcomes.

"The strength of VR in therapy is that you really get to grips with how people see the world," says Keshner. "They learn how to respond. And after practicing in the virtual world, they are much more confident and better able to do that in the real world too. "

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