Virtual Reality and Health

Medically Reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, MD on November 03, 2021
5 min read

When you think of virtual reality (VR), video games and other types of entertainment might come to mind. But it’s also showing promise as a complementary treatment in medicine.

Research is ongoing, but early studies suggest VR can help ease:

VR puts you in a 3D, computer-generated environment. It usually involves wearing a headset or goggles that show video. You move your head to look around the simulated setting. You might also have the option to control movement or interact with virtual objects by using a controller or other device. As you explore, speakers or headphones play sound effects or make things as realistic as possible.

Here’s a look at the research on VR for different health conditions, possible side effects, and more.

Several studies suggest VR can provide a welcome distraction from different types of pain. Examples include:

  • Swimming with dolphins
  • Relaxing at the beach
  • Exploring forests and other types of nature
  • Gliding through an icy canyon

In one study, VR eased pain for pregnant women who were in labor. Another found that VR helped children feel less pain and anxiety during a procedure to insert a catheter (a thin, flexible tube) into a vein.

One team of researchers reported that adults who wore VR glasses during a colonoscopy called their virtual experience “pleasant and distracting.” In a study of adults getting painful wound care treatments, those who received VR therapy needed less opioid medication to manage discomfort during the procedures than those who didn’t.

Other research has found that VR may help soldiers with combat-related burn injuries feel less pain while getting treatment to clean their wounds and remove unhealthy tissue.

Some physical therapists also use VR to help their patients tackle pain and other problems. Researchers still have more to learn about its uses for physical therapy. Higher-quality studies are needed.

The FDA recently approved an at-home VR option called EaseVRx. It uses cognitive behavioral therapy and other techniques to help adults with ongoing lower back pain. The prescription device includes a controller and headset with built-in gadgets that can detect your breath for deep-breathing exercises. The EaseVRx treatment plan includes 56 sessions that run 2 to 16 minutes each as part of a daily 8-week program.

For certain mental health conditions, VR aims to help you confront your fears. The idea is that it can give you a safe, controlled way to gradually and repeatedly explore situations that were deeply disturbing or scary to you. This may ease anxiety or stress. You’ll need an experienced mental health professional to guide you through the experience and teach you anxiety management skills, like mindfulness and deep breathing.

Examples include:

PTSD. Studies suggest VR may help ease posttraumatic stress disorder. It simulates the type of traumatic event you experienced, like combat, a disaster, or a car accident.

A review of studies found that VR treatment helped with PTSD and depression symptoms. But the studies were limited because they mainly looked at male military service members.

A single study of military veterans and active-duty personnel with combat-related PTSD found that virtual reality sessions, along with other treatments, led to less social isolation, depression, and anger 6 months later. The researchers cautioned that their findings suggest that VR alone isn’t enough to manage PTSD. It’s usually treated with options like talk therapy and medication.

Phobias. Research suggests that VR combined with talk therapy can be effective at treating specific fears, or phobias. For example, if you’re afraid of flying, VR can make you feel like you’re in an airplane. If you’re fearful of heights, it can simulate an elevator. This may help you work up to facing the fear in real life.

Depression and anxiety. One review of studies found VR therapy to be an effective part of treatment for these common mood disorders. A second review also suggested VR can help ease symptoms of depression and anxiety, including in people with cancer.

Some researchers say high-quality studies are needed to find out if VR is effective against generalized anxiety disorder and social anxiety.

Other mental health disorders. There’s more research to do, but experts are looking into whether VR can one day play a role in treating conditions like:

  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • Schizophrenia
  • Substance use disorders

No, but some researchers hope that one day, VR might help doctors diagnose conditions like Alzheimer’s disease.

One small study suggested that VR can spot an early symptom of Alzheimer’s: trouble finding your way from one place to another. The study involved people wearing a VR headset and walking through a simulated environment.

Other researchers are studying whether VR has the potential to help diagnose conditions like ADHD and social anxiety.

Virtual reality makes some people feel ill during or after their session. This is called “cyber sickness.”

The symptoms may feel like motion sickness, and they can include:

Research shows that taking off the VR headset and sitting with your eyes open or shut -- for about the same amount of time that you spent using VR -- may help you feel better. Your doctor or therapist might also have you take off the headset and do a hand-eye coordination task or breathing exercises. Motion-sickness medication can ease nausea, but it can bring on side effects of its own, like drowsiness and blurred vision.

Another possible side effect of VR, according to at least one expert, is that it has the potential to create false memories in children about 12 years old or younger. A child might mistakenly think something they did in VR happened in real life.

If your doctor or therapist offers virtual reality as part of your treatment, and you’re interested in trying it, they’ll need to show you how to use it properly.