Burn victims and post-traumatic stress disorder victims are frequently starting to have one common treatment: virtual reality.
Severe cases of children and adult burn victims are cared for and coming from five different states surrounding the University of Washington Harborview Burn Center. This regional burn center uses virtual reality not just for games, but also for professional treatment.
Hunter Hoffman and David Patterson developed the virtual reality therapy technique in 1996. They noticed that, as patients were getting their wounds binded and cleaned or staples removed, the usual doses of opioids were just not strong enough. 86 percent of the patients said they had worse pain while getting their wounds treated. It was only when the burn patients rested that opioids were sufficient enough to ease their pain.
Hoffman researched virtual reality therapy from the UW Human Interface Technology Laboratory; Patterson studied psychological strategies that distract the patients from their pain. Together these men designed a virtual world called SnowWorld to distract from the pain most of their patients have to endure.
The University of Harborview now uses virtual reality therapy as well as traditional opioids for pain treatment on their patients. In a preliminary study between two patients at the university they found that, when between playing video games on a nintendo versus using the virtual SnowWorld, each patient reported significantly less pain while focusing on the virtual reality game.
Using a Functional magnetic resonance imaging brain scan, the university studied volunteers who were given thermal pain simulations with virtual reality and without it. Brain scans showed that the amount of pain activity in the brain was reduced by having the volunteers use virtual reality as a distraction.
Just as virtual reality therapy can help people with physical pain, it can also help with the emotional. Most of virtual reality is used in exposure therapy in PTSD situations. The use of virtual reality is so the patient can confront and process traumatic memories. While a patient is dealing with PTSD, one common symptom is to ignore the memory. Virtual reality gives the patient a chance to recall the memory gradually until they can confront it.
Albert Rizzo, a director of medical virtual reality, works mostly in researching through clinic assessment, treatment rehabilitation and resilience. Rizzo is also working as a research professor at the University at Southern California.
He recalled on a podcast on American Physiological Association, that the Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 caused many people to come back with PTSD. The military involved more veterans to engage in therapy by using virtual reality. Rizzo began building an Iraq and Afghanistan simulation in 2004 based off of clients’ feedback. The simulation even introduced smells of diesel fuel, rotting garbage and burning rubber to make the whole therapy session more realistic.
The idea of virtual reality therapy transfers into civilian therapy as well — it could potentially benefit police departments, fire fighters and victims of terrorist attacks.
The research from both the burn care center and from Albert Rizzo has shown that virtual reality can be used in society as a medical tool, not just for entertainment.
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