How Technology is Redefining Physical Therapy

By Staff Writer 

Technological advancements are changing the way many physicians approach different medical techniques. Among some of the more successful innovations, one of the big buzzwords flying around the industry is “virtual reality.” 

People everywhere are incorporating this tool into their homes and businesses. While many recognize the phrase in the context of entertainment, there are several practical applications that virtual reality can offer.  

What is virtual reality? 

Before we dive into what virtual reality can do, we need to explore what it actually is.  

Virtual reality (VR) refers to intentional simulated experiences. Nowadays, experts accomplish this by generating realistic, albeit fake, environments using a particular program.  

Users can interact with the immersive environment through several different means depending on the specific system used. The more popular systems incorporate headsets and handheld controllers, which are very sensitive to movement.  

Users can look around or move to explore these artificial worlds. Many different disciplines look at VR as a “future” to their fields. These systems are incredibly popular among game developers and even the military! 

While it is easy to see why VR is such a big part of gaming and technical training, a large amount of research has been investigating its usefulness in terms of medicine.  

How can virtual reality be used in a clinic? 

Like with military training, VR gives future health professionals the chance to practice medicine without risking any harm to the patient. A study investigating the impacts of VR in surgical training for orthopedic medicine found significant improvements in technical skills (Aïm, et al., 2016) 

In addition to enhanced training, these methods may allow current programs to expand and streamline their curriculums (Khalifa, et al., 2006). The benefits of using VR are not just limited to the training of doctors and nurses. 

Many experts believe that these immersive experiences can have direct benefits to patients when incorporated into their treatment regimes (Li, et al., 2017) 

The simulated environments have the potential to offer patients a safe place and a fresh perspective that can significantly impact their treatment outcomes. Better yet, these virtual reality experiences come at minimal risk.  

There are no risky medications or surgeries required that may put their health in jeopardy. From a business perspective, it is a sound investment. Once you have a virtual reality system in place, using it costs minimal resources and requires minimal training to operate.  

What can virtual reality treat? 

While virtual reality is a relatively new treatment option, there are already hundreds of thousands of publications looking into it. As a new technology, there is always a need for further investigation, but that doesn’t mean scientists don’t already have a good idea of what it can do.  

Studies investigating the impact of VR interventions have found it to be promising in several different fields.  

In terms of mental health, data suggests it may be a useful tool in treating symptoms of autism (Kandalaft, 2013)post-traumatic stress disorder (Rothbaum, et al., 2005), and phobias (Garcia-Palacios, et al, 2002) . While many people find it more evident that these simulated scenarios would help in the treatment of psychological conditions, surprising studies demonstrate the effectiveness of VR in other conditions such as stroke (Merians, et al., 2002) and burn victims.  

Virtual reality as a physical therapy tool 

For decades, researchers saw VR as a promising physical therapy tool (Hoffman, Patterson, & Carrougher, 2000). In conjunction with other treatment techniques, VR was significantly effective at improving the physical therapy experience.  

These notions are especially true when pain is involved. 

Physical therapy is an incredible part of a patient’s recovery. Unfortunately, many patients fail to fully participate due to difficulties they encounter during the treatment itself.  

Physical therapy is not always easy especially after an accident. Some exercises may trigger discomfort or pain to the patient, discouraging them from reaching their full potential. 

Resisting recommended physical therapy can lead to a more extended recovery period or even permanent adverse effects. It is in the best interest of all parties for the patient to follow through with recommended physical therapy treatments from the beginning.  

There are different pain management techniques available already, but most involve pharmaceutical measures. These drugs come with their own risks, and even then, they do not guarantee complete effectiveness.  

This is where virtual reality comes in. Virtual reality can offer an additional dimension of pain management. While psychological trick can’t cure all pain, there is some degree of truth to the old phrase “mind over matter.” 

Distraction is a powerful technique in managing pain. While having a friendly conversation or listening to cool music can help distract you from physical therapy, it’s pretty hard to get your mind off of it when you see a clinic everywhere you turn.  

Virtual reality can transport patients to a tropical paradise or in the middle of the ocean! While it’s still not the same as a real vacation, these artificial worlds do create a much different physical therapy experience.  

In controlled studies, VR effectively distracted patients and delivered risk-free pain management during their physical therapy sessions (Carrougher, et al., 2009) 

While this doesn’t mean VR is the answer to everything and a complete substitute for necessary drugs, these studies demonstrate that it is a promising technique that clinicians should consider. Enhancing the patient’s experience can go a long way, and medical professionals should always do their best to keep their feelings as the top priority.  

Technology is developing rapidly, and nobody can know what we can expect medicinal treatment to look like in the next decade. What we can expect, though, is that advancements will be coming and that virtual reality will likely be a popular tool in a clinic of the future. Staying on top of trends and giving serious consideration to some of these new techniques can help clinics jump ahead of the curve to give their patients the level of care they require. 



Aïm, F., Lonjon, G., Hannouche, D., & Nizard, R. (2016). Effectiveness of virtual reality training in orthopedic surgery. Arthroscopy: the journal of arthroscopic & related surgery, 32(1), 224-232. 

Carrougher, G. J., Hoffman, H. G., Nakamura, D., Lezotte, D., Soltani, M., Leahy, L., … & Patterson, D. R. (2009). The effect of virtual reality on pain and range of motion in adults with burn injuries. Journal of Burn Care & Research, 30(5), 785-791. 

Garcia-Palacios, A., Hoffman, H., Carlin, A., Furness Iii, T. A., & Botella, C. (2002). Virtual reality in the treatment of spider phobia: a controlled study. Behaviour research and therapy, 40(9), 983-993. 

Hoffman, H. G., Patterson, D. R., & Carrougher, G. J. (2000). Use of virtual reality for adjunctive treatment of adult burn pain during physical therapy: a controlled study. The Clinical journal of pain, 16(3), 244-250. 

Kandalaft, M. R., Didehbani, N., Krawczyk, D. C., Allen, T. T., & Chapman, S. B. (2013). Virtual reality social cognition training for young adults with high-functioning autism. Journal of autism and developmental disorders, 43(1), 34-44. 

Khalifa, Y. M., Bogorad, D., Gibson, V., Peifer, J., & Nussbaum, J. (2006). Virtual reality in ophthalmology training. Survey of ophthalmology, 51(3), 259-273. 

Li, L., Yu, F., Shi, D., Shi, J., Tian, Z., Yang, J., … & Jiang, Q. (2017). Application of virtual reality technology in clinical medicine. American journal of translational research, 9(9), 3867. 

Merians, A. S., Jack, D., Boian, R., Tremaine, M., Burdea, G. C., Adamovich, S. V., … & Poizner, H. (2002). Virtual reality–augmented rehabilitation for patients following stroke. Physical therapy, 82(9), 898-915. 

Rothbaum, B. O., Hodges, L., Alarcon, R., Ready, D., Shahar, F., Graap, K., … & Baltzell, D. (1999). Virtual reality exposure therapy for PTSD Vietnam veterans: A case study. Journal of Traumatic Stress: Official Publication of The International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies, 12(2), 263-271.