When Eran Orr couldn’t pick up his 2-year-old daughter due to pain in his right hand, he knew something had to change.
Orr, a former executive officer in the Israeli Air Force, was suffering from cervical disc herniation. During his own rehab process, he saw major flaws with the physical therapy regimen, such as arduous PT sessions and difficulty quantifying results.
“At the same time I saw people playing with VR devices, so for me the combination was obvious,” says Orr, CEO and founder of VRHealth.
Orr saw potential to leverage virtual reality as a tool in the practice of physical therapy. He founded VRPhysio, now called VRHealth, in 2016.
VRHealth is a virtual reality software company that uses VR technology for physical therapy, pain management and reduction. During a painful or arduous procedure, VR can transport a patient to sunny beaches in Bali or to a calming rainforest in South America. Distraction is a key element in managing pain because it blocks pain signals before they reach the brain.
Pain is largely psychological, says Jorge Gomez-Mantellini, marketing manager at VRHealth. Sometimes a person experiencing pain just needs to be distracted from it. “If we can make people unaware of the pain, that’s when we are successful,” he says.
Other studies confirm that virtual reality as a tool for relaxation or distraction during medical procedures can help with managing pain.
A study published in the journal Pain Management found that “participants immersed in VR experience reduced levels of pain, general distress/unpleasantness and report a desire to use VR again during painful medical procedures.” Another study published in 2016 found that virtual reality provides a significant amount of relief for patients experiencing chronic pain.
“We’re not inventing a new exercise,” says Gomez-Mantellini.  “We just apply the VR to it.”
Gomez-Mantellini notes that, of course, severe pain needs to be addressed. So VRHealth has software systems that help with pain management. The overall goal is to relax patients and provide them with tools, like breathing techniques, to help them handle their pain.
VRHealth sells its products to clinics, hospitals and offices for about $2,000 a year. Each headset costs about $900, and the software starts at $100 a month.
The technology also encourages patients to test their limits. Gomez-Mantellini says that patients are sometimes worried about reinjuring themselves and can be hesitant to push themselves to make optimal progress.
While VRHealth’s original focus was on improving the experience of physical therapy so that exercises didn’t feel repetitive, VR can also be used in other healthcare contexts, such as training medical students, calming patients and improving doctor accuracy.
The technology can also track patient progress. It starts by assessing a baseline range of motion, and each VR session tracks improvements over time.
Virtual reality is becoming a staple in the healthcare industry, with many applications that go beyond pain management. It’s projected to become a 6.9 billion dollar industry by 2026.
For example, IrisVision is helping patients with low vision regain sight. And Bravemind uses virtual reality as exposure therapy for patients with PTSD.
Virtual reality can also be an important tool for doctors.
ImmersiveTouch uses virtual reality to create patient-specific surgical plans. By using MRI and CT scans, ImmersiveTouch creates accurate 3D models of each patient. For example, a patient with a spinal cord injury will go through scans, and ImmersiveTouch uses those scans to create an individualized model of that patient’s spine. Doctors now have the ability to look at a 3-D model from any angle, which helps with planning the surgery and performing it more quickly.
VR can also strengthen the doctor-patient relationship. Instead of just talking to patients, doctors can now give a patient a VR headset and show them exactly what is going to happen during surgery.
“It’s helping real patients, and our mission is that this should be used, really, in every surgery,” says Jay Banerjee, the president and co-founder of ImmersiveTouch.
ImmersiveTouch, and other VR companies, like Medical Realities, are applying virtual reality to training. It can be difficult for medical students to get hands-on experience, so virtual reality creates a no-risk practice space. It also uses haptic technology, which uses vibrations to recreate the sense of touch.
Banerjee says surgeons rely on their sense of touch, dexterity and manual skills. “It’s not only just cognitive and mental, but it also has a lot of physical components.” The training improves accuracy, retention and speed, he says.
As the software, technology and capabilities expand, VR has the potential to find a home in most hospitals, clinics and operating rooms.
“It’s a tool in your arsenal,” Gomez-Mantellini says. “You can do so much in so many different landscapes of healthcare.”