How VR can reduce pain and aid rehabilitation

The Impact VR Research Lab from Sheffield Hallam University (SHU), has explored how virtual reality technology can support burns survivors, amputees and children undergoing limb rehabilitation.

To improve accessibility and compliance of clinical therapies, they design fun games that execute mechanics designed to reproduce clinical interventions adapted to the specific needs of the users. Their leading work on physical rehabilitation incorporates fully immersive and interactive in-game elements that replicate physiotherapy exercises.

A suite of projects has succeeded in developing a set of immersive and interactive virtual reality games which have considerably improved the health, well-being and life styles of children and adults affected by neurological and musculoskeletal conditions, orthopedic trauma and chronic pain.

The impact achieved by these innovations has been fourfold:

  • physically and psychologically enhancing the health, life styles, and well-being of patients;
  • promoting more effective practitioner standards and services;
  • improving public awareness and understanding of such technology and entering a related debate on social policy;
  • and establishing commercial and medical collaborations to improve healthcare and the NHS’s cost-effectiveness.

VR for pain distraction during burns dressings changes

Most burn-injured patients undergo painful repetitive therapeutic processes, such as wound debridement and dressing changes.

In addition, the perception of pain associated with burn injuries has been reported as one of the most intense types of pain. Therefore, the pain that accompanies the burn injuries treatment presents a critical challenge, to be met not only by the patients but also by the clinical staff.

The Impact VR Lab designed an immersive virtual basketball game to help burn adult victims cope with the pain of medical treatments, including wound dressing.

In their clinical trial, the burn-injured patients experienced considerably less pain and anxiety (according to score-ratings of 0 to 100) than in conventional dressings sessions. Those immersive scenarios possessing high degrees of patient presence and engagement proved the most effective. That could help burns survivors cope with pain during their treatments and speed up the healing process.

VR training system for amputees

Myoelectric-powered prosthesis are driven by the muscle strength of the patient, but with the aid of electric power. A biochemical process generates electrical tension in the microvolt range every time a muscle contracts.

With myoelectric arm prostheses, muscle tensions from the residual limb are usually read by two electrodes. The low myoelectrical impulses that lie in the microvolt range are then amplified and forwarded to the electronics of the prosthesis in the form of control signals.

The myoelectric-powered prosthesis can be more functional and advantageous than passive or body-powered prostheses. However, extensive training is required to take full advantage of the myoelectric prosthesis’ usability.

The Impact VR research lab designed a VR experience that lets amputees practice using a prosthetic limb before they are fitted. Their preliminary findings suggested that myoelectric-powered training enhanced with VR can simulate a pain-free, natural, enjoyable and realistic experience for the patient.

It was also found that VR can complement prosthesis training by improving the functionality of the missing body part. Finally, it was shown that VR could resolve one of the most common challenges for a new prosthesis user, which is to accept the fitting of the prosthetic device to their own body.

VR physical rehabilitation

Children with limb motor impairment often undergo repetitive therapeutic physiotherapy sessions to minimize functional disabilities of the affected area. Even though therapeutic processes can improve functional outcomes and minimize persistent disabilities, patients often neglect to participate fully in physical therapies due to the associated procedural pain.

Over recent decades, there has been a growing interest in designing non-pharmacological interventions which aim to minimize pain during physical therapies and improve functional outcomes.


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