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Game On: How Virtual Reality is Changing Physical Therapy

Physical therapists at Lehigh Valley Health Network use virtual reality to help patients heal

Virtual reality rose to popularity among gamers but is now being used as a tool by Lehigh Valley Health Network (LVHN) physical therapists to help patients recovering from certain neurologic or orthopedic conditions.

Imagine if physical therapy was more like a game where you sharpened your balance while weight shifting through a winding path, catching butterflies or slalom skiing? That’s exactly what’s happening at Lehigh Valley Health Network (LVHN) as physical therapists use virtual reality technology to help patients recover from certain neurologic and orthopedic conditions.

“Virtual reality is a landmark innovation in rehabilitation. It improves patient motivation, engagement and function. The virtual reality environment stimulates neurologic response to maximize motor relearning and recovery of function and independence,” says physical therapist Sandra Tremblay, Manager, Rehabilitation Services at Lehigh Valley Hospital–Cedar Crest.

Virtual reality and coordination

LVHN physical therapists have the ability to utilize two different types of leading-edge virtual reality rehabilitation technology in their treatments. Patients wear a headset and hold controllers or sensors in each hand and work with their physical therapy team to address deficits related to a variety of neurologic conditions including mild concussions, vestibular disorders, stroke recovery, Parkinson’s disease and balance impairments due to multiple sclerosis.

“Our patients love the interactive platform that virtual reality provides. It makes it so much fun that they almost forget that it’s physical therapy.” - Physical Therapist Sandra Tremblay

Virtual reality allows patients to experience an environment that is both fun and engaging according to Tremblay. “When coupled with our hands-on approach to therapy, virtual reality enhances the overall therapy experience in amazing ways that help us achieve our patient goals faster than ever before.”

Facing your fears in a safe environment

In addition to treating balance and coordination issues, Tremblay says that virtual reality also is useful when it comes to treating motion sickness and fears of heights or closed spaces.

“People can address their fear of heights, motion sensitivity, vertigo and more by being exposed to different environments in a way where they are safe. We can recreate spaces like a crowded train station or being high up in a tall building, while keeping them in a safe environment,” she says.

The virtual reality technology also provides those who suffer from motion sickness with a long-term solution that doesn’t require the need for medication. Tremblay says that motion sickness is caused by a conflict between the vision and inner ear and virtual reality is a form of desensitization.

Making physical therapy fun

Tremblay says that the response to virtual reality has been positive among patients and colleagues. “Our patients love the interactive platform that virtual reality provides. It makes it so much fun that they almost forget that it’s physical therapy,” she says.

Some of the ways patients use virtual reality during rehab is to simulate popping bubbles, hitting targets or even to soar like an eagle through different obstacles. This system also may be utilized in mirror therapy for patients with significant upper or lower extremity weakness to improve the brain’s awareness of that limb and remodel the brain to improve function and reduce pain. 

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