Editorial: Medicine is investigating the wondrous possibilities of virtual reality

  • A patient uses a 3-D virtual reality device for stroke rehabilitation at Northwestern Medicine Marianjoy Rehabilitation Hospital in Wheaton.

      A patient uses a 3-D virtual reality device for stroke rehabilitation at Northwestern Medicine Marianjoy Rehabilitation Hospital in Wheaton. Paul Valade | Staff Photographer

 
The Daily Herald Editorial Board
Posted9/29/2022 1:00 AM
This editorial is the consensus opinion of the Daily Herald Editorial Board

Some of the most exciting things to read about are advances in medicine -- new discoveries and new technologies that make it possible for more people to survive disease and disaster, and ultimately to live less compromised and fuller lives.

What is filling us with gratitude and wonder this week, is news that Northwestern Medicine Marianjoy Rehabilitation Hospital in Wheaton has started a study on adult stroke patients to determine if virtual reality therapy can be a good complement to their regular therapy.

 

The early stages are showing some promise, as researchers start by determining how well the patients tolerate VR. The 20 or so Marianjoy patients will have six sessions -- 30 minutes of virtual reality followed by a half-hour of conventional therapy per session -- over the course of two weeks. Their progress is charted, including how much time is spent in those activities and the range of motion in the shoulders, elbow, forearms and wrist. A "hide and seek" game with animated penguins is designed to exercise a patient's cervical range of motion.

The study is spearheaded by Dr. Mahesh Ramachandran, the hospital's chief medical officer and a stroke rehabilitation specialist, and Dr. Dhruvil Pandya, a neurologist at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital in Winfield. The doctors hope to publish their findings, but the timing will depend on the study being completed and what the results are.

The Marianjoy study will add to the canon of knowledge being assembled all over the country, looking at how virtual reality games and challenges can improve the effectiveness of more traditional physical and occupational therapy for patients, including stroke patients. A recent New York Times story pointed to an analysis of 27 studies done at the University of South Alabama, which found that, in general, virtual reality therapy combined with traditional therapy is more effective than traditional therapy alone.

"Everyone that we have actually tested has given us positive feedback," Pandya told our Katlyn Smith. "The next step is to look at clinical outcomes, whether this, along with the traditional rehab therapy, does it improve outcomes?"

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Moreover, virtual reality is emerging as a tool in other medical disciplines as well. Last November, the Food and Drug Administration authorized marketing the first virtual reality product earmarked to treat chronic pain. Other studies are seeing uses for VR in treating post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression, and even in surgery.

How does it work? In short, researchers say virtual reality can "nudge" the human brain in ways that other media cannot, and it motivates patients to keep at it. Basically, it's fun. And how amazing is it that fun can be good for us?

We wish Drs. Ramachandran and Pandya, and their study patients, successful outcomes. What's good for them may turn out to be good for millions.

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