By Kevin Howell

Virtual Reality has gotten new life in recent years, and it shows no signs of slowing down. One report expects the VR market to be worth approximately $34 billion in five years.

While many industries are adopting the technology, namely gaming and education, VR is having the biggest impact on where it matters most—healthcare. In fact, VR in healthcare is expected to generate $2.54 billion globally by 2020.

“Virtual reality has many applications in healthcare and has tremendous promise,” said Dr. Jesse Pines, director of the Center for Healthcare Innovation & Policy at George Washington University, in a recent Forbes article. “Over the next decade, I think we are going to see a major increase in its use for applications such as simulation, medical education for providers and for patients, and also in direct patient care.”

So how exactly is virtual reality impacting healthcare today, and what are some promising applications for the future? Let’s take a look.

Managing Pain

Many patients deal with chronic or recurring pain, whether it’s post-surgery pain or other conditions. Virtual reality has been proven to help relieve pain as the parts of the brain that recognize pain are less active when people are immersed in VR experiences.

For example, amputees often experience “phantom pain” in the area where they’re missing a limb. This is hard to treat, but VR therapy helps relieve pain as patients put on a headset and control a virtual version of their missing limb. Patients report having less pain and going longer stretches without pain from the therapy.

Helping Stroke Victims

People who suffer a stroke, brain injury or brain illness often struggle with simple tasks others take for granted, such as balance and control. VR advancements help patients with these simple tasks by creating a virtual environment that allows them to practice these tasks.

For example, MindMaze, a Swiss startup, blends virtual reality and augmented reality in their product, MindMotionPro. Patients wear a VR headset and see themselves as an avatar in their environment. If the patient has an affected limb, MindMaze tricks their mind into visualizing their movement so they can perform tasks like reaching and grasping. It teaches their brain how to use affected limbs and recover faster.

Overcoming Phobias

Treating fears and phobias is one of the most established forms of VR treatment. For years, therapists have used graded-exposure therapy to treat patients, which is when people are slowly introduced to their fears to help overcome them.

VR takes this to the next level by helping people face their fears in an immersive environment. VR allows therapists to customize treatment for patients individually, and patients can practice at home as well.

Surgical Training

One of the best uses of VR in medicine is the ability to train doctors and nurses effectively. In 2016, Dr. Shafi Ahmed performed the first-ever live broadcast operation, which was viewed on smartphones and VR headsets.

Dr. Ahmed performed a colon cancer operation on a 70-year-old patient at Royal London Hospital, with cameras above the operating table to allow viewers to see the details of the surgery. It gave medical professionals a close view of a procedure without having to be in the operating room.

Being able to view operations virtually can help eliminate obstacles in training medical professionals, such as time, space, and costs. Also, doctors are practicing surgery through VR experiences, which is more effective than watching videos and other training methods.

Virtual reality is making a major impact in the medical field, and these are just a few of the uses for the technology. As VR grows, the healthcare industry is sure to adopt even more groundbreaking uses for it.

Have an idea for how virtual reality or augmented reality can impact a community? EPICS in IEEE provides grants for engineer-related community service projects. Find out more here.