At first glance, it is not clear how to make a connection between virtual reality and Parkinson’s disease. But by looking closer, this form of technology may actually contribute to the treatment of this condition.
Around 60,000 new cases of Parkinson’s disease are reported annually in the United States alone. While there is still no cure yet, doctors have been progressively exploring new ways of alleviating the symptoms of this disease. Elderly people who have been afflicted with Parkinson’s experience daily torment, not only because of the disease but also because of the high cost of treatment.
Virtual reality technology became a big hit in the consumer market. It offered a one-of-a-kind experience for users, and this also paved the way for software developers in programming a wide variety of applications associated with VR. Doctors saw this opportunity for developing alternate methods of treatment.
Parkinson’s Disease: A Brief Overview
Basically, this disease affects the nervous system of those who are suffering from it. The cause is still unknown. It involves a part of the brain that produces dopamine, a chemical associated with the movement of the body. The brain cells (or neurons) within it are progressively dying, resulting in loss of body coordination.
The symptoms included in Parkinson’s are tremors, sluggishness of movement (bradykinesia), limb stiffness, unstable body coordination, and speech problems. These will lead to more complications such as dementia, mood swings, difficulty in swallowing, sleep disorders, bladder problems, constipation, low blood pressure, smell dysfunction, fatigue, pain, and sexual dysfunction. Risk factors include old age, heredity, and excessive exposure to pesticides and herbicides. Men are more prone to this disease than women.
There are medications that can help in managing the symptoms. Although their potency diminishes over time, doctors also suggest a change in lifestyle such as exercising and stretching as a part of the patient’s daily routine. A specialist in speech language can also fix your difficulties in speaking. There is also a surgical procedure available called deep brain stimulation. This procedure involves planting an electrode in a specific part of the brain connected to a generator that sends impulses to help reduce tremors.
Emergence of Virtual Reality
The technology of virtual reality is already available before it came to the mass market. Companies developed ways to make consumer-grade VR equipment, mostly in the form of headsets and integration of smartphones. There are also omnidirectional treadmills and assistive controllers available to improve the virtual reality experience.
The idea of VR is to project the user’s senses into a virtual environment. Headsets block off any interaction with the sense of sight and sound from reality. Instead, a virtual world is projected to the eyes and ears through specialized displays and headphones that transmit lifelike visuals and sounds. Treadmills with VR integration are also used to simulate unobstructed lower body movement and controllers that track hand movements for more VR applications such as swinging a bat or shooting a ball. This aims to deliver a fully immersive experience to the users in the virtual environment.
Most VR headsets are used in video games and most of the software developers lean toward this kind of function. There are other uses for VR such as military training and education amongst many others. Medical therapy also delved in this technology, developing therapies for pain and PTSD.
Parkinson’s Disease Treatment Using VR
By the year 2020, the estimated active users of virtual reality will reach 120 million and 1/5 of it will be primarily used for healthcare purposes. Doctors are frequently collaborating with software developers to create programs that will serve as an alternative to traditional therapy and treatment of diseases.
The concept of rehabilitation by using VR is almost the same as traditional methods, but by incorporating this technology, the treatment experience will become more bearable and enjoyable for the patients. There will be commands issued to the patients while they are in the virtual world, such as basic movement that will eventually progress depending on the performance of the user. This gives motivation and sense of accomplishment through an achievement tracking feature, making the patient more engaged in the activity. In order to improve this further, the developers create attractive and lively environments. It gives more enjoyment and satisfaction as opposed to the traditional treatment.
By developing this new kind of treatment, this can be eventually used to treat diseases other than Parkinson’s that involve the decline of body movement. Integrating the existing techniques in therapy with the technology available to the masses will make healthcare accessible to more people in the future.
Implications and Real-Life Use
Although we still cannot discount supervised therapy despite the advancements in technology being available to everyone, the implications of this kind of treatment can bring convenience to the patients. Frequent visits to the doctor may cost a lot and can be physically demanding, especially to those afflicted with Parkinson’s. By developing new ways of treatment, patients can now perform therapy by themselves in the comfort of their homes. Not only does it reduce the cost of treatment, but it can also improve their living conditions, resulting in a more effective solution in treating the disease.
Treatment for other diseases may spring up if the results of this technology turn out to be favorable to the patients. The application of VR is not only limited to therapy. It can also be used by surgeons with the association of robotic technology. Overall healthcare technology will be improved in the following years.
Risks in Using VR
While this may be counterproductive, extended use of virtual reality may cause several body movement issues. The more the user is detached to the real environment, the larger the risk of motion sickness (also called cybersickness) after the use of VR headsets. The characteristic of this symptom is mostly due to disorientation and may also cause postural instability. Further symptoms include discomfort, nausea, headache, and fatigue. Possible risks are still being studied by doctors and scientists. Meanwhile, patients are advised to take regular breaks in using VR headsets.
The possibilities of virtual reality technology are vast. A significant development in VR leans toward the convergence of the virtual and real world. This is called extended reality. This could remove the restraints in current VR technology, like being detached in the real world. This opens up more opportunities in healthcare and the application of VR in general.
Presently, virtual reality cannot simulate what the human eye could see. As of now, relying solely on VR for treatment is still unreliable. Further tests are being made by doctors to assess if the treatment is really effective for it to be a viable solution for therapy.
As more cases of Parkinson’s disease appear in the past few years and in the present, researchers and doctors are persistently pursuing a possible cure for this disease. Utilizing current and upcoming technologies for treatment can greatly help the patients suffering from it. This could also make the jobs of doctors easier having created a more effective healthcare solution. The recent improvements in health care certainly are exciting and worth looking forward to. Still, we cannot ignore traditional methods, but this kind of progress is something we cannot dismiss. Who knows? Maybe this will become the therapy of the future.
- The idea of VR is to project the user’s senses into a virtual environment.
- By the year 2020, the estimated active users of virtual reality will reach 120 million and 1/5 of it will be primarily used for healthcare purposes.
- Treadmills with VR integration are also used to simulate unobstructed lower body movement and controllers that track hand movements for more VR applications such as swinging a bat or shooting a ball.