Scientists from EPFL are currently testing the use of VR to reduce phantom pain in paraplegics and those who suffer from spinal cord injuries. Phantom pain can’t be treated with medication, but VR may be the solution. (Photo from EPFL)


VR technology is still on the rise, but it still hasn’t become an every day thing for the masses. Typical complaints: the gear is too expensive and the games are usually just short demos rather than anything sustainable. But VR may soon find new life in the medical field. Doctors are using the tech in different ways to help them tackle different issues. A team of scientists from the Ecole Polytechnique federale de Lausanne (EPFL) have found a way to use VR to help paraplegics deal with phantom pain.


People who become paraplegics due to a spinal cord injury often have to deal with phantom pain, which sadly can’t be treated with medicine. With the team’s latest breakthrough, VR could be a cause for some relief. They had people wear VR googles, which showed live feed from a camera filming a pair of dummy legs. The camera was set up to mimic a person’s point of view in relation to their own legs. This gave the illusion that the dummy legs actually belonged to them.


From there, scientists then tapped the dummy legs and the area above the subject’s spinal lesions. After about a minute, the subjects felt like it was their own legs being tapped. They reported that the sensation helped reduced the neuropathic pain. Why does this happen? Team leader Olaf Blanke explains that the tapping is “translated onto the legs because the visual stimulus dominates over the tactile one.”


After the successful results, Blanke and his team are now working on a digital therapy that automates visuo-tactile simulations for those who suffer from chronic pain conditions and spinal injury patients. Amputees often experience a similar condition with phantom limbs, but the EPFL didn’t say whether this new technique could work for them or other people who have other conditions.


Incorporating VR into the medical field is becoming a more common practice. The EPFL isn't the first team to use VR for medical purposes. A team of Duke University researchers has developed a VR system that helps paralyzed patients regain some movement. A team from Oxford University is using VR to help paranoia patients face their fears and a team in Europe is using VR as a means to fight depression.


It’s great to see that VR is being treated more than a video game gimmick. While it may not be popular with all gamers, at least others have found ways to take advantage of the technology and use it for something that could change a lot of lives. It’s better than having those headsets live in the closet.




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