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What Is Virtual Reality Therapy?

By A.M. Boyle
Updated Jan 28, 2024
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Virtual reality therapy is an intense therapeutic program in which a patient is immersed in a simulated world or situation. Psychologists, psychiatrists, and other mental health professionals use it to treat patients who suffer from certain conditions, such as a phobia or post traumatic stress disorder. Medical practitioners have found that virtual reality therapy also helps patients deal with pain and unpleasant medical procedures.

When doctors and therapists use virtual reality therapy, a cyber world is created with computer-generated images. These images are detailed and realistic and are designed to give the patient the sensation that he or she has been transported somewhere else. The practitioner places a device called a stereoscopic headset over a patient’s head and eyes. The headset tracks the patient’s head movements while displaying a three-dimensional landscape. This process encapsulates the patient within the projected environment and generates the illusion that he or she is actually moving around inside the virtual world.

In the area of psychotherapy, doctors and therapists often use this process to help patients face and overcome fears and phobias. For instance, if the patient has a fear of crowds, the virtual environment might simulate a situation where the patient is surrounded by other people so that he or she can safely confront and overcome the fear. Similarly, mental heath professionals also use virtual reality immersion to help patients with post traumatic stress disorder face and hopefully come to terms with the events triggering the stress reaction. All of this can be done in a monitored, controlled environment, tailored to the needs of each individual patient.

With regard to the medical applications of this therapy, virtual reality immersion has shown promise in helping patients to manage pain and deal with uncomfortable medical procedures. For instance, doctors have performed studies with patients suffering severe burns, the treatment of which can be excruciating. Upon using virtual reality therapy, however, doctors found that the patients experienced significantly less pain during treatment. The human brain only processes a certain amount of external input at a time, and when it is preoccupied with the virtual environment, it does not process pain stimuli as effectively as it otherwise would. This, in turn, greatly lessens the sensation of pain for the patients.

Sometimes, clinicians enhance the virtual reality experience by using other sensory input. For example, if the stereoscope displays a grassy field, the smell of fresh-cut grass might be piped into the therapy room to enhance the experience. Along the same lines, if the virtual image introduces a dog or cat into the simulated environment, a furry, stuffed toy might be placed within the patient’s reach so that he or she can actually feel the animal, accentuating the illusion.

In both the medical and mental health fields, virtual reality therapy has met with great success in the treatment of patients with various disorders. Doctors and therapists are constantly exploring potential uses and implications for this form of therapy. As researchers continue developing greater and more elaborate technologies, virtual reality therapy will continue to expand and improve.

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Discussion Comments
By SarahGen — On May 10, 2014

I have never tried virtual reality therapy. I think it might be a valuable treatment method but at the same time, I'm not so sure that it will help everyone face their fears. When someone is in virtual reality, he or she knows that this is not real, it's just a simulation. So I think the individual will not have a very hard time going through the simulation, but this doesn't necessarily mean that he or she can face fears in real life.

By SteamLouis — On May 09, 2014

@fBoyle-- Virtual reality therapy is being used more and more frequently by doctors for issues like post-traumatic stress disorder. My brother received this therapy after returning from Iraq and it was definitely beneficial for him.

But this therapy type is still being studied. Unfortunately, it's not the solution for all problems. It doesn't work for some people or it might not work alone. It usually has to be supplemented with other types of psychotherapy at the same time. My brother also went to cognitive behavioral therapy. But it's definitely worth a try for people experiencing issues due to traumas and phobias.

By fBoyle — On May 09, 2014

I had no idea until I found this article that virtual reality programs could be used in psychotherapy. It sounds very interesting and promising. The only concerns I have are whether this type of therapy is available widely and if there are many doctors who are trained in it?

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