Virtual Reality for Rehabilitation and Therapy

Virtual reality (VR) is often thought of as the obsession of super-gamers. It’s a neat toy to bring your entertainment to the next level. 

But, increasingly, VR is proving its utility far beyond the game room. Now, more than ever, VR is being used for a range of practical purposes. For VR fans, the technology not only has immense power to make life more interesting and fun, but also to make life healthier, happier, and more productive.

And that means that today, you will find VR not just in man caves and rec rooms, but also in hospitals, clinics, and rehab centers.

Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation

The appeal of VR lies in its ability to create a wholly immersive experience for users. With VR, you can lose yourself in an entirely new environment. You can find yourself sunbathing on a tropical beach one minute and then scoring the winning goal with the American women’s soccer team the next. Inside your VR headset lies all the wonders of this universe, as well as endless varieties of imaginary ones — all waiting for you to explore.

And that is precisely what gives VR its massive therapeutic potential.Research is increasingly showing that virtual reality can be a tremendous benefit for patients recovering from illness or physical injury. For example, VR was demonstrated to provide significant improvements in upper limb mobility for patients recovering from a stroke.

VR is also being used in the rehabilitation of cancer patients, but not how you would expect.  Yale University has partnered with Glimpse Group subsidiary Foretell Realityto provide VR therapy to patients of the Adolescent and Young Adult Oncology (AYA) clinic at the university’s teaching hospital. Fortell Reality has customized a therapy program for the patients that is run through Occulus Quest headsets. These can be used by the patients anywhere they have a WiFi connection, either at home or in the hospital. 

This program provides VR group therapy sessions of 45-60 minutes for AYA patients and Yale is seeing early progress in decreasing anxiety and depression among cancer patients in the therapy group. The VR technology allows the users to join sessions using avatars in order to remain anonymous if this increases comfort in use of the therapy. VR group therapy sessions such as this one being piloted at Yale have significant potential for multiple types of group therapy, not just teens comfortable with technology.


Likewise, VR is increasingly being used in rehabilitation centers to help patients who are at risk of potentially life-threatening falls, including those who suffer from chronic dizziness, mobility impairments, or imbalance. By putting patients in real-world situations for therapies rather than simple exercises, VR rehab increases engagement and motivates patients to reach goals. A patient may be more motivated to get to the end of a VR trail to see a sunset than to simply walk for 30 minutes on a treadmill in front of a TV watching the news.

Researchers theorize that the very attributes that make VR so entertaining are also the reasons why it’s such an effective rehabilitation tool. First, VR is entertaining, and that makes patients more willing to stick to their therapy regimen — and enjoy the process. Second, VR can simulate real-world conditions more realistically than any other tool. 

And when the body has been injured, it has to relearn to navigate the world. Just as VR is increasingly being used in classrooms for its capacity to teach students to negotiate true-to-life circumstances and environments, so, too, does it help patients rediscover how to move safely and competently through their physical worlds.

Pain Control

In addition to supporting patients’ physical rehabilitation after injury or illness, VR is also proving to be a powerful tool for pain control. Indeed, there is mounting evidence that VR works best in helping to reduce the most severe types of pain. For example, burn patients who used the technology as a form of pain control during the often excruciating process of changing their bandages reported significantly less pain than those who used other methods, such as watching television or meditating. 

For children, pain control is a whole other animal. Kids, especially young ones, can struggle to articulate their levels of pain which, in turn, can lead to struggles to control it. But, when your kid is usually struggling with something, distraction is key in helping them deal with it. What happens when that something is cancer? If you’re New York’s Montefiore Medical Center, you work with an artist and a VR company to create an immersive experience that can stimulate patients’ minds and soothe their pain. Called the Boroughs of Rivers, Jennifer Maravillas created multiple large-scale art installations that were placed throughout the Pediatric Infusion Suite of the Children’s Hospital at Montefiore. These artworks were then digitized by Early Adopter LLC and converted into VR and AR that can be experienced by patients, parents, and staff.

The various artworks, which are part of Montefiore’s CHILZone program, allow patients the chance to visit local landmarks like the Bronx Zoo. Or, other VR programs developed at the CHILZone may be customized to allow a patient to visit her street if she’s homesick. The CHILZone is working on VR and AR programs as well as 3D printing to enhance pain control and many other forms of rehab.

Researchers theorize that the enhanced ability of VR to control pain is because the immersive effects of the technology amplify the distraction, diverting patients’ attention away from their pain far more effectively than other strategies. This could potentially offer urgent relief to those who need it most while reducing reliance on highly addictive and potentially lethal opioids. 

Psychological Benefits

The health benefits of VR are not only physical. Perhaps its greatest promise is in helping those who suffer from mental health challenges, such as anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD). 

Virtual reality is increasingly being used to support the treatment of combat veterans suffering from PTSD. Specifically, VR has been shown to increase the effectiveness of a proven therapeutic strategy known as exposure-based therapy (EBT). Using VR simulations, veterans can virtually “revisit” the scene of the trauma, guided through the scenario by trained therapists who help them develop effective coping responses to the traumatic memory. With controlled repetition, the psychological and physiological reactions that are characteristic of PTSD become less intense and reflexive, and more manageable.

Immersion is also key to the use of VR in mitigating the symptoms of anxiety disorders. Meditation has been proven effective in reducing stress and managing anxiety. For individuals who have anxiety disorders, however, quieting the mind, and focusing attention can be incredibly challenging. Using VR technology as a meditation tool can help those suffering from anxiety achieve the calm they need by surrounding them with soothing music, the sights and sounds of a tranquil beach at sunset, or of sunrise over a hushed mountaintop. Users learn to time their breathing to the rhythm of ocean waves or birdsong, and soon the body and mind have found 10, 20, 30, or more minutes of peace.

Next Generation Doctors

As effective as VR might be for those seeking healing in body and mind, it also has significant benefits for the healers themselves. In fact, medical schools are increasingly turning to virtual reality to train the next generation of healthcare providers. This ranges from VR simulations to train medical assistants in basic procedures to more advanced training of surgical residents and practicing surgeons. 

Best of all, virtual reality technologies, such as Chimera, a product by Glimpse Group subsidiary Pagoni VR, brings together students and educators from around the world, allowing tomorrow’s scientists and healers to learn from the best. After travel restrictions due to COVID caused the Glimpse Group to cancel a flight to Brazil, they used Chimera to meet with a potential business partner. Glimpse Group’s CEO and two General Managers met with a Brazilian hospital exec to discuss bringing VR/AR to his South American hospital. The combination of virtual and physical learning environments borne of these technologies allow real-time interaction between professors, students, and advanced learning content in a highly geographically distributed space.



The Takeaway

Virtual reality is far more than just a fun tool for entertainment. It’s also a powerful weapon in the war against injury and illness. For those seeking to heal their bodies, VR can help patients regain their mobility. It can distract the body from physical pain. And it can restore calm, quiet, and control to a troubled mind and spirit.

Luke Smith is a writer and researcher turned blogger. Since finishing college he is trying his hand at being a freelance writer. He enjoys writing on a variety of topics but technology topics are his favorite. When he isn’t writing you can find him traveling, hiking, or gaming.

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