Skip the navigation

Virtual therapy: Just what some doctors order

Imagination can trump pain and phobias

By Linda Rosencrance
March 14, 2005 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Virtual reality, technology that gives users the feeling they are somewhere else, can be of great value in treating people suffering from a variety of physical or psychological conditions.
Therapy based on the technology is being used in a small number of U.S. clinics to treat burn victims and people with phobias, such as the fear of flying, spiders and heights. Researchers say the technology holds enormous promise for treating post-traumatic stress disorder and addictions and for use as a distraction technique in painful dental and medical procedures, including chemotherapy and physical therapy.
Advances in the technology, such as higher-resolution head-mounted displays, will most likely help virtual reality take its place among more mainstream treatments, say researchers.
Virtual reality generally involves a computer-generated, multidimensional sensory environment that users experience via interface tools that enable them to immerse themselves in the environment, navigate within it and interact with objects and characters inhabiting the environment.
Virtually Better Inc., a company co-founded by Barbara Rothbaum, director of the Trauma and Anxiety Recovery Program at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, creates virtual reality environments for use in the treatment of anxiety disorders.
"For most of our applications, we use a head-mounted display that's kind of like a helmet with a television screen in front of each eye and has position trackers and sensors," says Rothbaum. "And for most environments, we have earphones as well. And [some] people hold a handheld device and can manipulate their environment."
In SnowWorld, the first virtual environment designed specifically for treating burn victims, patients undergoing painful treatments can fly through an icy canyon with a frigid river and waterfall and shoot snowballs at snowmen, igloos, robots and penguins standing on narrow ice shelves or floating in a river.

Occupational therapist Dana Nakamura at Seattle's Harborview Burn Center exercises a patient's limb while the patient is distracted by virtual reality to reduce her pain.
Occupational therapist Dana Nakamura at Seattle's Harborview Burn Center exercises a patient's limb while the patient is distracted by virtual reality to reduce her pain.
Image Credit: Hunter Hoffman


The virtual reality treatment is successful because the patient's attention is no longer focused on the wound or the pain, but rather on the virtual world, says SnowWorld's developer, Hunter Hoffman, director of the Virtual Reality Analgesia Research Center at the University of Washington Human Interface Technology Laboratory in Seattle.
Austin Mackay sings the praises of the technology. Mackay, 25, is a patient of David Patterson, a clinical psychologist who treats burn patients at the Harborview Burn Center in Seattle.
Mackay's right arm, right flank and rib cage sustained third-degree burns in a fire last September. He initially participated in a regular physical therapy regimen.
"With the physical therapist, it was pretty


Our Commenting Policies