How Virtual Reality is Helping Treat PTSD
Virtual reality (VR) was once considered to be the future of entertainment, and nothing more. As the industry stands today, it’s still the most well-known use of VR, but it’s by no means the only application it has in our everyday lives. Gaming is a great way to use VR technology, but the hardware is also starting to be used in diverse applications ranging from training football players to interior decorating and even to treating illnesses, particularly neurological conditions like PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder).
VR in Healthcare
Though the market for VR in healthcare is still small, some startups are laser-focused on opening up the potential for the technology to heal, and are already doing great things in the space of VR for therapy. Startups like Virtually Better and Psious are working on exposure therapy projects with VR that can help patients with phobias and emotional disorders finally start to heal. Other startups are working on applications for training surgeons, physical therapy, and even pain relief.
These innovative companies might not be on their way to becoming the next “unicorn” startups, but they are giving people with PTSD and other conditions a powerful gift: a chance at relief. There are other reasons to explore VR as a therapy option, too. Prescription drug costs have been going up, and they’re expected to rise through 2017—by about 11.6% for people under 65, and 9.9% for older Americans. Many are not able to afford these costs long term, and are beginning to turn to cheaper options for treatment, like VR. So far, PTSD treatment is one of the most popular uses of VR as a therapy. But how does it work?
Treating PTSD with a Novel Approach
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is a common condition that occurs when an individual experiences a traumatic experience, but are unable to move on and feel better as time goes on. People who suffer from PTSD may relive the traumatic experience over and over again, experience racing thoughts or feel jittery, have trouble sleeping, and feel more negativity and guilt. Relationships can suffer, and people with PTSD often have trouble leading a happy life, avoiding trigger situations and losing enjoyment for some activities. It is a devastating mental illness, and it can happen to anyone who experiences trauma. It is particularly common in veterans.
The VR therapy experience is fairly simple: the headset shows scenes that a patient might have seen or experienced, such as the inside of a helicopter or a jungle in the middle of battle (initial software was designed for veterans). During the session, the therapist asks the patient to recount their own story, and controls the environment: sights and sounds. Initial use of this technique in 1997 was a stunning success—all ten patients achieved significant progress in a month’s time. Later, the same techniques would be used for burn victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, allowing the patients to see the planes crashing, the same things they’d experienced in reality. When this type of exposure therapy was combined with the tuberculosis drug D-Cycloserine, results were incredible—a 70% remission rate in 6 months. The VR treatment for PTSD has been shown time and time again to help patients heal and move on with their lives.
New Developments and VR Therapies
Now that the technology has been successfully used for PTSD treatment, some companies are testing the waters and seeing how VR can help treat other mental and emotional conditions. Much of this exploratory VR work is happening in the classroom. There has been an explosion of prescription drug use in children, mainly to control hyperactivity disorders and other behavioral and emotional conditions in the last few years, which has parents, teachers, and healthcare professionals worried. 2.9 million children have been put on these medications, and there’s a chance that VR could provide a healthy alternative.
A Ray of Hope
For people who suffer from PTSD and other emotional or behavioral disorders, life can be a struggle. Just getting through the day sometimes requires medication and manipulation of the environment. While VR therapy isn’t right for every person with these conditions, it has already shown its ability to make life better for some veterans with PTSD, and it has the potential to reduce the use of prescription drugs in children. Thanks to the startups who are eagerly exploring these possibilities, we may soon have inexpensive, widely available therapy options with VR—no side effects included.