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The potential for Virtual Reality in Sports Rehabilitation

Victoria Reboredo, Clinical Specialist Physiotherapist and Teaching Fellow, discusses the emerging use and potential role for Virtual Reality (VR) in sports rehabilitation.

Virtual Reality

The possible applications of Virtual Reality (‘VR’) have received significant media attention, especially in the video game sector, but lately there has been increasing interest in how it can be used in digital healthcare. Sports rehabilitation is a particular area of focus, exploring how VR can help to get athletes back to peak fitness following injury, helping to optimise clinical outcomes and to improve patients’ quality of life.

VR can be defined as a 3D computer-generated image where interaction happens in a seemingly real or physical way, using special equipment such as a headset or sensors (for example haptic gloves) while moving within a contained area. With this equipment, the user is taken to a new, virtual environment where all the factors can be controlled.

Sports rehab 2

A key question is how VR compares to conventional rehabilitation approaches, and the honest answer is that we do not yet know the extent of what is possible with VR. Certainly pilot studies are already showing promising results in patients who have suffered an injury after six and twelve months’ use. One way in which VR can help recovery is by modulating sensorial motor information, or in simple terms, how our body reacts to, and processes the information it gathers from the environment.

Following injury, our ability to process sensory information can become disrupted, and the brain can translate this into learning, emotions, or memories, associating more and different layers of complexity with a particular movement.

Because VR has the potential to influence sensory processing and motor sensory integration, it can be used to help patients in a safe and controlled environment. Some studies have shown that using VR can help patients to stick to their treatment plan and reduce levels of anxiety and depression. As part of a wider rehabilitation therapy package, VR has the potential to help address the multiple challenges athletes face by reintroducing them progressively to situations where they need to perform to a high level under extra mental and physical pressures, overcoming anxiety, isolation, and the side effects of sometimes prolonged immobilisation and recovery periods. The more recent use of other pieces of equipment such as haptic gloves has expanded the possibilities of the use of VR in sports physiotherapy. Studies have shown that tactile alongside visual stimulation in VR increases the potential for sensorimotor integration (van Polanen et al., 2019).

Tennis injury

As with anything, VR has some potential limitations, from the requirement for considerable power and a broad data bandwidth to run simulations, to the obtrusiveness of current set-ups with bulky heavy equipment, the risk of falling or collision with real-world objects and in some cases the dizziness it can cause. There are also questions about the transferability to real-life scenarios, and social isolation. It also takes time to develop and test new interventions and assess their effectiveness.

Nonetheless, VR is a technology that will push the boundaries of what is possible in physiotherapy and rehabilitation. While not a replacement for physical training, VR certainly has the potential to complement more traditional methods and become a vital tool to use in rehabilitation therapy.

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Victoria Reboredo

Victoria Reboredo

Teaching Fellow

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