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Virtual Reality Entering the Medical World

Medically reviewed by Susan Kerrigan, MD and Marianne Madsen on February 8, 2023

Virtual reality is no longer just science fiction or the territory of gamers. As virtual reality becomes…well, a reality…it’s infiltrating the world of medicine as well. From CPR training to physical and psychological therapy, virtual reality (VR) is becoming a consequential mechanism for both patients and medical practitioners alike.


These days VR is accessible to everyone with a modern smartphone and a Google cardboard viewer, which can give you a simple VR experience for about $10. Meet Lifesaver VR; an app where you can learn CPR in the comfort of your home, practicing life-saving skills on a pillow! Although face-to-face training is preferable, many people never make it to a class, and a 2017 study found that using the app “can lead to comparable learning outcomes for several key elements of successful CPR.” 




Medical professionals are also taking advantage of what VR has to offer. In the past, certain surgeries could only be practiced by operating on an actual patient, which naturally has obvious risks. Now medical training simulators are being developed, as well as medical instruments that can work with these systems to create a more realistic immersion. Some hospitals are even using VR to plan individual surgeries. Using CT and MRI machinery to build 3-dimensional patient models, doctors can explore and plan out a surgery with VR. They can then explain the procedures to their patients and families, using these models that can alleviate fears and concerns.




Not only can VR be used for exploring the body, but it can also be used to reveal what’s happening in the mind. Cambridge University has developed a VR test for those at risk of developing dementia. Using VR, they created a navigation task that would require the functioning of a specific section of the brain that is usually compromised in at-risk patients. When tested, it was found that the VR test identified those at risk of early Alzheimer’s disease better than current tests. 


Physical Therapy


Virtual reality can also aid in therapies–helping patients with physical rehabilitation and building motor skills. Patients recovering post stroke and those with Parkinson’s disease often have difficulty with gait in their walking. Exercise programs using a treadmill synchronized with a virtual environment have had promising results. Exercise programs for children with cerebral palsy have also been created with the benefit that children find the program more fun and can do more repetitions or practice a great range of motion.


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Burn Treatments


Most fascinating of all, it has been found that virtual reality can be used to help relieve intense pain during burn treatments. Doctors found that using a virtual world distracted the patients so much that the pain they experienced dropped radically. Furthermore, studies have shown that patients also relive their original burn experience during treatment, so Snow World was created; a virtual winter wonderland filled with glaciers, snowman, and penguins to distract patients from their pain. 




Another area where VR is being used is in psychology. Virtual reality is being tested in its effectiveness in treating the fear of flying, of speaking, and other social phobias through exposure therapy–a psychological treatment that helps people to confront their fears. It can even be used to help treat PTSD by exposing the patient to images similar to their past experiences and then helping them to process their emotions.


Ultimately, as VR technology improves and becomes more accessible, time will tell how far its reach will span. One thing is for certain–virtual reality isn’t going anywhere, and it will be exciting to see the new ways medical professionals will harness it to help or treat patients.

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