New Virtual Reality System Helps Therapy Patients' Bodies and Brains

As a patient recovering from a brain injury careened his car into a highway divider and then a tree, it became clear why he started with this virtual reality car instead of the real thing.

Benefis outpatient therapy patients are benefiting from new Virtualis virtual reality system that helps heal bodies and brains.

Physical therapist Callie Lagge said the VR room in the Outpatient Therapy Center in Medical Office Building 4 has been hopping since the system arrived this fall. 

On a recent morning, a tween worked on hand-eye coordination with the VR system. Inside the headset, he saw a rendering of the universe with Earth to the side. His goal was to keep a rogue planet in his sights as it moved along a looped course. His therapist could quickly adjust the speed and difficulty of the simulation and what line the planet would follow to target different skills and muscles. 

To the boy, it felt like playing a game instead of physical therapy. 

virtual reality physical therapy

The VR system is used to treat neurological and orthopedic impairments. We're talking problems with balance, dizziness, motion sickness, brain hemisphere neglect after a stroke, chronic pain, speech, brain injuries, range of motion, and weakness.

"I've had a lot of balance gains and impact desensitizing the brain to motion. As you lean into the dizziness and discomfort, your brain starts to compensate," Callie said. 

The system is immersive with sound and hand controls. The next upgrade would be a balance pad to add another element to the experience -- and, more importantly, work other skills.

Among the scenarios is archery target shooting, which works on shoulder range of motion and strength. 
A grocery shopping simulation helps patients practice skills like problem solving, walking through crowds, bending and reaching for a basket, and more, in a safe place.
The system helps pave new neural pathways through mirror therapy. This helps, say, an unused arm come back into play. 
There are even simulations that can target the fear of heights. They can start with a relaxing simulation of a tranquil forest with deer, bird noises, and a babbling brook before tackling some heights. 
"We can work on fully immersing them into a complex environment, and yet it's a safe space," Callie said. 
The data that results is rich. Therapists learn things like what side of the brain isn't engaging in an exercise, how fast reaction times are, and what range of motion limits are in place. And they can document progress over time, too. 
The Virtualis is relatively new to this country. It was developed in France and introduced here in 2019.  Signs on the highway driving simulation have off ramps for Paris and Nice. It's customizable in other ways, though, such as traffic, the time of day, weather, speed, and even the skin color of the hands on the wheel.