The hope is that virtual reality could be used as an alternative to opioid treatments, so patients never have to start on narcotics, or can stop if they are currently using them.
Macular degeneration – in which the central part of the eye is damaged, usually resulting significant vision loss – has also been successfully treated with virtual reality.
"Researchers have long known that despite the fact that you have injuries to [the macula], other parts of the retina are still in tact," Rhew said, noting that opthamologists have used virtual reality to target an area of the eye called the "preferred retinal locus (PRL)," which is small and hard to locate, but which can lead to better vision if found and utilized.
"Using the VR headset with an eye-tracking software helps locate the PRL," and the magnification ability on the camera helps zoom in on the area they are looking for.
In one study carried out by Johns Hopkins University, some patients walked in legally blind and left with 20/30 vision, rhew said. This allows people "to do things they were never able to do – they can now read a book, they can watch TV, they can even do gardening."
VR technology is currently being used as a treatment by some 80 opthamologist centers across the United States, including UCLA, but not many people know about it, he said.
Spinal cord injuries have also been treated with virtual reality.
"What we've seen is that in patients who have injured the spinal cord, like we talked about with the eye, they may have lost some of the major components of the neuro-pathways, but some of the minor ones are still intact, and we in general have not figured out how to utilize those minor ones," Rhew said.
The virtual reality "tricks" the brain by targeting and activating pathways in the brain and spine that might still be intact and could lead to eventual mobility.
In a case study of eight patients who suffered from chronic paraplegia from anywhere between 3-18 years, after undergoing a year of an intensive VR treatment with physical therapy, "all of them were upgraded from paraplegia to partial paralysis."
"This can help us in managing patients and restoring function for those with disabilities," but success depends on individual effort, Rhew said, explaining that "we have it within ourselves but we sometimes need that ability to go over that little hump, and technology can sometimes help us."
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Rhew said he believes the unanticipated rise in VR and digital treatments is due in part to the fact that devices have become more powerful, battery life has grown longer and storage has increased.
Increasing use of mobile phones is also a factor, since the technology can be accessed from anywhere. Additionally, VR can in many cases be significantly cheaper than typical medical equipment.
"We're going to continue to learn more over the coming years, the technology is going to get better, we're probably going to able to make further advancements, we're going to improve the user experience" and will likely participate in more clinical trials, Rhew said.
Doctors will also likely become increasingly aware that they can "truly use this as an adjunct or alternative to things today that are major issues. So I see it improving the lives of people pretty dramatically, especially those with disabilities."