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Virtual Reality and Rehabilitation: Treating the Brain

Updated: Oct 27, 2023

This Christmas, my wife surprised me with a gift I really wanted—an Oculus Quest 2. The Oculus is a wireless virtual reality headset that is primarily used for fun and recreational gaming. However, this piece of technology and other similar virtual reality equipment, offer new possibilities in the world of rehabilitation. The American Physical Therapy Association states that virtual reality is an emerging area of physical therapy, and I want to give insight into why this could be such a unique and influential tool.

There are many studies online about implementing virtual reality for a wide variety of health conditions, especially involving the neurological system. I believe VR can be particularly impactful because it is a way to influence your brain and change its processing and perception. For example, often with chronic pain and ailments, one may start to associate a certain movement with pain and negative emotions. A good analogy that I know has happened to everyone in their life is when something happens and you quickly say ouch, even though it didn’t hurt. That is an example of your brain processing reality differently by assuming something was going to hurt. Unfortunately, with chronic pain, sensitivity can develop, and an incident that wouldn’t normally hurt, ends up causing pain.

Virtual reality has the potential to impact this processing by offering a novel and very immersive visual environment that encourages movement and distracts from routine pain triggers. For example, I know I would be more inclined to reach out and pet a virtual manatee swimming by than simply reaching out to grab a pen. Although I won’t be using the Oculus Quest 2 in the clinic, I am excited and interested in the ways that this type of technology will grow and become more involved with rehabilitation services. Movement is medicine and virtual reality promotes movement!

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