Many people think virtual reality (VR) is just about strapping on a high-tech headset and playing a game purely for entertainment.
However, VR is making a huge impact in the health sector, too, especially in the following five ways.
1. To Help People Deal With Debilitating Addictions
Statistics from the World Health Organization (WHO) indicate 3.3 million people die from alcohol misuse each year.
Furthermore, there are at least 15.3 million individuals with drug use disorders. The road to recovery from a substance abuse addiction can be a rocky one, and that's in part because so many factors can trigger people to use again.
However, some researchers are investigating ways to use VR to help affected individuals learn how to deal with the temptation to use when it arises.
A company called Limbix, which develops VR technologies for the mental health sector, is spearheading the effort.
Health practitioners know a wide variety of factors can encourage recovering addicts to use again.
Sometimes they want to do so after seeing particular people associated with their pasts, and the time of day can also stimulate usage. However, the VR technology takes those variations into account and even works on mobile devices, making this treatment option quite portable.
2. To Make Physical Rehabilitation More Pleasant and Worthwhile
Although it's often necessary for regaining function, the physical rehabilitation process can be grueling. Patients frequently associate it with intense pain, frustration and confusion while they wonder if they're doing the exercises correctly.
However, the VR Health Group, which has offices in Tel Aviv, Israel and Boston, Massachusetts, hopes to change that with a growing assortment of VR programs used for rehabilitation purposes. Some of them are for people with spine issues, while others target the entire upper body.
Offerings in the VRPhysio line urge patients to get engaged in fun games that require performing therapeutic movements. They also get real-time feedback.
On the care provider's side of things, it's possible to make assessments about a patient's baseline range of motion, as well as his or her ongoing progress.
There are also plans for the existing software to eventually track the effectiveness of at-home exercises and give statistics to therapists.
3. To Increase Comprehension of Complex Concepts
Even people who have worked in the health industry for decades sometimes find it difficult to grasp things explained via text and graphics alone.
That's one of the primary reasons why Ghost Productions has seen success by offering 3-D stereoscopic animated content for medical professionals using VR headsets.
The company's first practical application of this kind of VR medical imaging involved creating content that explained how to insert a spinal implant device.
Such material was substantially more immersive than what textbooks and standard videos offered, allowing physicians to gain greater knowledge to help them with real-life patients.
4. To Provide Peace of Mind Before Crucial Surgeries
Some patients are so ill or injured that authorized family members must give consent to perform the life-saving operations recommended by their doctors.
In other cases, the individuals are fully aware of their treatment but may be so terrified due to the uncertain nature of surgeries that they delay giving the go-ahead.
However, a company called Surgical Theater develops technologies to help those in need of operations understand what's ahead. Used for surgeries involving the head -- such as those necessary for fixing aneurysms -- the VR imagery consists of an avatar wearing a lab coat that takes patients through explanations about various parts of their brains and how they function.
Plus, depending on the type of intervention needed, patients can see the processes required for dealing with their medical conditions, starting from outside the skull and working inward. Stanford University's medical center is one of the organizations using the technology.
Its representatives say besides helping patients feel calmer before going under the knife, VR feedback is also useful for training residents or explaining surgical techniques to children or non-English speakers.
Medical procedures can make patients feel helpless. However, VR helps them understand what to expect, transforming some of the natural anxiety associated with surgeries into empowerment.
5. To Educate Medical Students About the Aging Process
Many people who are training to become physicians read countless books about geriatric patients before treating them. However, thanks to VR technology from Embodied Labs, people in the health sector can get more realistic perspectives.
One of the simulations, called "We Are Alfred" chronicles the experiences a 74-year-old African-American man named Alfred.
He suffers from macular degeneration and hearing loss. In addition to taking VR users through simulations at the doctor's office, the software illuminates how diagnoses can affect family relationships.
These companies and case studies prove VR is about much more than playing games.
It's useful for that, too, but it could positively reshape health-related possibilities moving forward.