Exploring Virtual Reality Physical Therapy

Virtual reality (VR) is a well-established gaming technology that enables enthusiasts to immerse into simulation with breathtaking 3D graphics and interactions. On the flip side, it’s still relatively new in the medical field, and there’s so much to learn about its use in physical therapy care.  

But that’s not to take away the fact that VR has already made significant strides in the health sector, particularly helping with pain management and relieving post-traumatic stress disorder. VR technology has also been a critical pillar in medical training, helping professionals and trainees to visualize the inside of the human body and reach otherwise inaccessible areas. Other notable applications of VR in medicine include recovery from substance addiction, cleaning burn wounds, relaxing patients, speeding up recovery, and more. 

So today, we focus solely on the potential virtual reality has in transforming physical therapy practice. Please keep scrolling to discover: 

  •  What is virtual reality physical therapy, VR-PT? 
  • How did VR-PT come about? 
  • What are some VR-PT applications? 
  • Does insurance cover VR-PT? 

 Let’s get started! 

A physical therapist assisting her elderly patient through a virtual reality session. 
Virtual reality physical therapy not only allows for easier intervention with patients who would otherwise encounter difficulty making appointments, but it also provides a level of customization many providers find extremely useful.  

What is Virtual Reality Physical Therapy, VR-PT? 

Virtual reality physical therapy or VR-PT uses computerized programs, artificially created environments, and visual immersion devices to give patients a simulated experience, enabling the diagnosis and treatment of physical conditions.  

VR-PT patients use exercise-based games to navigate through a host of artificial environments and complete special tasks tailor-made to treat the specific condition. But that’s not all; the technology aims to isolate the patient from the surrounding environment through sensory inputs that provide an illusion of immersion into a computer-generated, interactive virtual world.  

So generally, a VR-based therapy provides controlled stimuli in the context of treatment, with an actual therapist monitoring the patient’s reaction. Further, during physical therapy assessments, the therapist can adjust the virtual environment, e.g., adding the vibration intensity to weigh the triggers and different patient reactions.  

How Did VR-Based Physically Therapy Come About? 

The use of virtual reality in physical therapy dates back to the early 1990s, with several laboratories and clinics promoting its use since then. One Ralph Lamson, a psychologist, was among the first pioneers of the technology, with his first publication dating back to 1993. He was more concerned with the medical and therapeutic aspects, i.e., treating people with technology rather than apparatus.  

What followed was a series of more research and experiments, and by 2005, the use of VR in therapy was already registering a 70% success rate for PTSD patients alone. Another groundbreaking study was completed in March 2014, where researchers compared and contrasted the efficacy of VR exposure therapy to traditional exposure therapy. 

In the randomized controlled trial, depression, PTSD, and anxiety patients were examined before and after the treatment. And as you may guess, the results revealed that VR exposure therapy was way more efficient than conventional therapy. 

The latest published study about VR use in physical therapy was completed in June 2019 by Medical Science Monitor. The study aimed to compare the effectiveness of VR rehabilitation against conventional physical therapy in improving gait and balance among patients with Parkinson’s disease. After dividing the 28 patients into two groups and undertaking them through two different treatments within the same period, both parties registered improvements in balance and gait. However, the group that underwent VR therapy showed more advanced positive changes, especially in the Parkinson’s Disease Rating Scale.  

What Are Some VR-PT Applications? 

If your clinic hasn’t taken advantage of VR-based physical therapy, it’s high time you considered trying it out, as it portrays a huge potential in transforming the medical field. Let’s discover various instances where virtual reality has proven successful in aiding the diagnosis and treatment of conditions. 

Orthopedic Conditions 

Shoulder pain, osteoarthritis, ligament injuries, torn meniscus, etc., are some orthopedic conditions that VR-based physical therapy can relieve. For instance, you can wear a VR headset displaying a video that shows you how to stretch in various directions to offset stiffness, numbness, joint pain, swelling, etc.  

Pediatric Conditions 

When left alone, pediatric conditions like autism, Down’s syndrome, and cerebral palsy may easily limit a child’s functional mobility? The good news is, VR-based physical therapy may help. VR technology introduces an exciting virtual environment that helps keep the child engaged while their therapist focuses on rehab to correct their movement impairments.  

Neurological Conditions 

Neurological conditions may cause arm and lower extremity impairments, causing motion, reaching, and balancing difficulties. Thankfully, VR may be effective in enhancing upper and lower extremity balance and coordination during physical therapy. Examples of neurological conditions that may benefit from VR-PT include stroke, Parkinson’s disease, cervical myelopathy, spinal cord injury, etc. 

Vestibular Rehab  

As you may be aware, the vestibular system coordinates eye movements with the position of your head. So, damage to the system may cause vertigo or difficulty to keep an upright posture. Luckily, VR headsets may help expose patients to simulations that challenge their visual system while undergoing rehab. Exposure to videos of roller coasters, optokinetic shapes, or swooshing cars trains you to stay upright by strengthening your optic nerves and inputs.  

Physical therapist helping her patient with a virtual reality session.
As technology continues to evolve, therapists are continuously finding new ways to apply this tech in their clinics.  

Does Insurance Cover VR-Based Physical Therapy? 

The short answer is YES! Medicare and other renowned health insurers provide coverage for VR-based physical therapy under telehealth services.  

So, what exactly does Medicare health insurance cover, and what claims can you file? For starters, you should confirm that your patients pay 20% of the Medicare-approved amount, where a deductible applies. This takes care of such services as: 

  • Diagnosis, evaluation, and treatment of acute stroke (wherever you are) 
  • Treatment of substance use disorder 
  • At-home physical and occupational therapy sessions 
  • Virtual check-ins and E-visits 

But let’s face it; VR-based physical therapy is still a new concept, and many private health insurers are very reluctant to cover it. For instance, XRHealth, one of the few companies providing home-based VR physical and occupational therapy, is still grappling to get more insurers to cover its services countrywide. So, without insurance, the company charges people a monthly fee of $179 for VR headsets and two therapy sessions.  

While virtual reality is still an infant in the medical field, we can’t underestimate its potential, considering the significant strides it has already made. VR-based therapy’s effectiveness in pain management, correction of movement impairments, strengthening of nerves, etc., is impressive and an ingenious aid for physical therapists. The best part is that the VR technology is highly scalable, and it’s only a matter of time before researchers identify more opportunities for the improvement of healthcare.  

A2C Medical is dedicated to offering the best-in-class software solutions to assist with healthcare billing, documentation, reporting, security & compliance, etc. Book a FREE demo today to see how our physical therapy EMR can help your practice scale. 


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