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Telemedicine and other forms of virtual medicine are changing the way patients engage with their care providers, and recent advances in virtual reality are bringing improvements to the world of physical therapy.

Patients recovering from injuries or surgery work with physical therapists to improve flexibility and expedite the recovery process through targeted workouts. Routines may include therapeutic massage, equipment workouts and other tasks that require a visit to a physical therapist’s office – but some patients can achieve fantastic results from body-weight exercises at home.

Virtual reality systems and the gamification of daily life can extend the physical therapist’s office into new realms.

How therapists use VR systems today

Medical technology has been advancing at lightning-fast pace. Patients who were born before the advent of the internet can talk to their doctors without leaving home. Many others have benefited from da Vinci surgery, which uses a multi-limbed robot to conduct invasive surgery without the need for large incisions.

Now, technology solutions can benefit physical therapists and their patients.

Inc. Magazine reported that VR-augmented physical therapy helps patients recovering from stroke, injury or surgery. Dr. Lev Kalika, a New York-based therapist, uses VR to treat patients with back pain and walking disorders as well as orthopedic and neurological issues. Kalika uses a virtual environment to speed up the learning process as patients work to replace previous movement strategies with new techniques.

At Northeastern University, researchers use VR technology as part of an evidence-based program for improving motor learning. One of the university’s current projects is an affordable, modular controller for children with disabilities. The touch-based controller allows patients to use their limbs and head to engage with physical therapy programs.

As researchers and developers use existing VR technology for medical applications, there’s another aspect of virtual physical therapy that isn’t going unaddressed: the fun factor.

Gamification of physical therapy

At a consumer level, VR applications usually focus on fun and games, and physical therapy applications will use that to great advantage. Products such as Nintendo’s Wii Fit and Microsoft’s Xbox Fitness have already brought basic yoga and strength training workouts home, showing that it is possible to bring a customized, trainer-led experience home.

According to New Grad Physical Therapy, some technology companies want to gamify physical therapy through VR applications. To gamify means to bring elements from games, such as skill progression and rewards, into the real world. These elements make rehabilitation more fun and engaging, plus it encourages patients to stick with their prescribed therapy regimen.

Experienced physical therapists can use VR applications to augment their current programs. Some VR programs can be used at the office while others can be used at home to support rehabilitation efforts. Industry leaders are still figuring out how best to integrate VR into current physical therapy practices. Expect to see big advancements in this area during the coming years.