Virtual reality is something that people usually associate with gaming and entertainment, but there is more to the technology than those two fields, and it is becoming increasingly popular as a tool for things like training people who work in complex or dangerous fields. Medicine is one such field.

If you have ever used a virtual reality device, you have probably been amazed at how realistic and immersive it is – even consumer-grade devices such as the Oculus Rift offer a huge amount of immersion and can ‘fool’ the mind into thinking you really are in some strange virtual world. Scientists are just starting to explore the potential of those devices, and are now using them to help doctors learn how to diagnose and treat a range of conditions in different and sometimes unusual situations.

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Virtual reality is also being used in medical treatments – for example, people who suffer from phobias are being given virtual reality treatments to help them overcome their phobia. If they are scared of flying or heights, they can go in simulated air-planes, or look down simulated cliffs – because the danger is not ‘real’ it may be easier for them to push themselves to stay in the environment that scares them for longer. The same applies for claustrophobia. Being in a controlled environment helps them to practice their coping strategies, and will also help them to break any avoidance patterns that they have in place. They can do this in a safe and private place – so there is no embarrassment associated with having a panic attack in a public place. If they need to stop, they can do so. If they want to re-try the experience several times, then that is an option too.

People with post-traumatic stress disorder often benefit from exposure therapy as well. They can use it to relive stressful situations and get the closure they need, or get used to the fact that the noises they are hearing in day to day life are not the same as the noises they encountered on the battlefield. With these treatments, they an learn what triggers them, and figure out coping strategies that will help them to live a normal life.

Amputees who suffer from phantom pain sometimes find that spending time ‘moving’ the phantom limb can help to stop the pain. Virtual reality game s can help to alleviate pain for burn victims, as well, making it easier for them to get through their treatments and physio therapy. The idea here is that their brain is overwhelmed by the stimulus from the game, so they are less likely to feel pain.

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In terms of training, virtual reality offers a low-risk way of practicing complex surgery options. Surgeons would normally learn on cadavers, and work their way up to more complex tasks, helping regular surgeons instead of doing surgery by themselves. Modern VR techniques offer an alternative to this, and provide haptic feedback, so that the surgeon feels like they are really doing the proper procedure. The procedures are based on CT scans of real patients, to make them as realistic as possible.

VR technology has come a long way, but it is still not perfect, and we can expect to see it improve a lot in the next few years.

As the technology becomes more affordable and more mainstream, we can expect to see that it will be used more and more as a treatment option – for people with stress, anxiety, phobias and other issues, and even for the management of chronic pain. As a tuition tool, it may become a ‘self study’ tool that anyone can use – rather than something provided only to those who are studying at university or in training at a major hospital.

Today, there are still some issues with the ‘uncanny valley’, and also with motion sickness. Not everyone can handle 3D and virtual reality with the current set-up, but the issues are usually to do with the frame rate, resolution, and the fit of the headset, rather than with the concept of 3D itself. With more testing, and more advanced units, those problems will go away and the percentage of the population that struggles to use 3D and VR will fall dramatically. There will always be some people who find it hard to use, and they will miss out on some rather useful treatments, but for those who can enjoy it, the benefits are far greater than just entertainment and games, and they can improve cognitive function, enhance the rate of learning, and help people to re-train their brains in a way that other forms of multimedia and traditional media simply cannot. We are just beginning to see VR’s true potential.

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