18 February 2024

VR and AR in Medicine: A New Reality of Treatment

Technologies of virtual reality are not longer considered something new or unusual. VR and AR have entered the field of healthcare some time ago, changing the way doctors study and treat patients. These devices enhance the quality of medical work, which is crucial considering that, according to the report of the Institute of Medicine in […]

Technologies of virtual reality are not longer considered something new or unusual. VR and AR have entered the field of healthcare some time ago, changing the way doctors study and treat patients. These devices enhance the quality of medical work, which is crucial considering that, according to the report of the Institute of Medicine in the USA, around 10,000 people die each year in America alone due to medical errors.

The modern healthcare industry is not only about treatment but also about making therapy and recovery more pleasant. Additionally, doctors face another challenge – the implementation of non-pharmacological treatment, as it is more effective and safer for patients.

Medical solutions in the field of Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) are powerful tools for non-pharmacological treatment and patient rehabilitation. You can read more about this in this article.


Training of medical personnel

Virtual reality technologies are already involved in various medical fields. The process of training medical professionals using VR is extremely important. In the Weill Cornell Medical College in New York, USA, there is a virtual reality room with a simulator for surgeons. No practice on cadavers, not to mention about alive patients!

The system is equipped not only with graphic headsets but also with means of tactile feedback. The doctor feels the mechanical impact on the organs of the “patient.” With the help of such a simulator, necessary skills for successful surgery can be acquired with significantly lower costs.

Augmented reality has improved CT or 3D analysis of medical imaging of patients, enabling precise diagnosis by identifying the underlying causes of diseases.



A similar simulator exists for dentists as well. At the University of Aachen in Germany, a similar simulator is used to train the administration of local anesthesia. Tissues with corresponding parameters are modeled based on scanning data. After that, the graphics and tactile feedback system allow the future specialist to practice injecting, feeling everything that happens after each needle movement. Then they can verify if they accurately hit the specified nerve.


In psychiatry

In psychiatry, virtual reality is employed based on the principle “to understand the patient, one must see the world through their eyes.” For this purpose, the Mindscape program by Viscira has been developed. It is designed not only for professionals but also for the relatives of the patient, helping them better understand how a person with productive symptoms of schizophrenia lives: thought disorders, auditory hallucinations, and delusions.

VR is used in exposure therapy to create virtual environments that can simulate real-life situations that patients may fear or find challenging. Exposure therapy is one of the most effective methods for treating anxiety disorders, and virtual reality provides a safe and controlled way to show patients their fears. Additionally, with the help of virtual technologies, doctors model a specific “calming” environment for patients with heightened anxiety and stress. This practice is referred to as relaxation therapy.


Treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is a type of mental disorder that millions of people worldwide suffer from. This disorder can arise from various causes, such as war. Since 1997, the Institute of Creative Technologies at the University of Southern California has been using virtual reality for PTSD treatment through various simulations, often related to war. These simulations help veterans overcome post-traumatic syndrome. In a notable case, a former special forces soldier who suffered severely because he believed he hadn’t done everything to save a comrade. Doctors, using a shooter simulation, recreated a real-life scene in which the patient realized he had done everything he could. His condition significantly improved. This practice is quite relevant given contemporary events.


Combatting phobias and fears

Moreover, virtual reality is effective in treating phobias. With the help of AR applications, such as Spiderworld by HITlab, patients with arachnophobia can see virtual spiders crawling on their hands. In moments of panic, individuals can simply turn off the program and reassure themselves that there is not a real threat. Another application, SnowWorld, allows users to throw snowballs at penguins in a “winter” setting, reducing pain in those who have suffered burns.


VR training for Alzheimer’s disease

Some medical startups use virtual reality technologies to help elderly people improve memory and cognitive functions, facilitate rehabilitation and increase their social activity.

Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) manifests as episodic memory loss and disruptions in executive, motor, and language functions. Pharmacological treatment does not show significant effectiveness, leading to increasing focus on non-pharmacological therapy.

Portuguese scientists have developed training for individuals with moderate AD, focusing on practicing basic skills. Simple tasks, such as morning hygiene, cooking, a trip to the store, or pharmacy, are challenging for those with AD. With modern technology, people with AD can train or even “relearn” these activities. Patients perform all manipulations in a virtual apartment and city.


Virtual Immersions in Cerebral Palsy (CP) Treatment

VR rehabilitation has demonstrated effectiveness in treating cerebral palsy in children. Among its primary manifestations are paralysis, paresis, changes in muscle tone, poor coordination of movements and more. The main goal of rehabilitation for CP patients is the correction of motor disorders.

Scientists conducted a study involving 58 children suffering from spastic cerebral palsy, a condition characterized by increased muscle tone. Participants were divided into two groups: the first group underwent a course of physical exercises (PE) focusing on increasing the supination angle of the hands, while the second group utilized computer technologies (VR) with a headset and motion sensors attached to the shoulder and forearm. Using the headset, children immersed themselves in an interactive 3D world, where they performed rehabilitation exercises.

In the VR training group, there was an increase in the supination angle by 5 degrees, reaching 93.3% in the left hand and 73.3% in the right hand. Compared to the group engaged in regular exercises, the results were more than twice as good.


VR and AR as powerful analgesics

The analgesic effect of virtual reality is related to the brain’s inability to process all incoming information simultaneously. When a person is in VR, neurons are engaged in processing visual, auditory, and other non-pain signals rather than pain signals.

The first VR product with an analgesic effect was developed by American researchers Hunter Hoffman and David Patterson. They created a virtual winter landscape where burn patients could throw snowballs at snowmen. By using VR, pain sensations during bandaging noticeably decreased, proving to be more effective than opioid analgesics.

The use of virtual reality doesn’t induce side effects  in contrast to some types of painkillers. The only exception is cases of individuals with severe motion sickness, where VR training may exacerbate this condition.

Virtual medicine is gaining momentum, with new applications and approaches emerging to address various issues. Augmented reality, which analyzes ongoing events, will simplify the diagnosis and treatment of patients, reducing the likelihood of medical errors.