Virtual Reality (VR): A Therapy That Can Treat PTSD

Health Writer

J. Walter Thompson’s Innovation Group think tank unveiled its fourth annual Future 100 report. The report covers future trends and innovation opportunities in a variety of sectors, including health and lifestyle. Highlighted in the report is virtual therapies (including virtual reality, or VR) and the prediction that VR will become a more mainstream consumer trend through the use of homebased VR headsets.

Do you suffer with PTSD? Is this possibly the therapy you’ve been looking for to finally treat this life-altering condition? The following is a review and update of VR as a treatment for PTSD.

Though the use of VR first emerged in the late 1980s, it pretty much disappeared because of its costs. The very first study on Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy (VRET) for PTSD, published in 1999, examined its effectiveness in treating a Viet Nam war veteran and noted that the patient experienced a 34 percent reduction in symptoms (clinician observed) and a 45 percent reduction (based on the patient’s self-assessment).

More recently, VRET was featured in a PLOS One journal in 2012. The study reviewed 10 articles that looked at the efficacy of VRET in the treatment of PTSD. Out of the 10 studies, seven showed that VRET produced statistically significant results in comparison to a control group.

The 2012 study did also find that VRET was comparable to traditional exposure therapy. The study also suggested that at that time, it was not clear just how many sessions of VRET are optimal for the treatment of PTSD. It did confirm that “VRET is as efficacious as traditional exposure therapy and can be especially useful in the treatment of PTSD patients who are resistant to traditional exposure therapy.”

A 2013 Scientific American article further examined VR therapy for the treatment of PTSD. PTSD typically occurs when someone has survived a traumatic and horrific experience like war, sexual assault, or childhood abuse.

The person suffering with PTSD often experiences symptoms including horrible nightmares, flashbacks, or significant mood swings, and when faced with certain events or moments that evoke the past horrific experiences, the sufferer perceives threat and can often act out.

Medication and talk therapy are often used to treat the individual. VR allows the person to confront reminders of the trauma “safely” and deal with those exposures so the PTSD is literally deactivated over time. VR options include the use of a headset in a clinical setting with the therapist helping the patient to navigate and to cope with the virtual scenario.

Ultimately the goal is to desensitize the person to the virtual exposures which will help to decrease PTSD symptoms and especially, triggers. In one study, functional MRI studies showed that VR restored user’s brain activity to more normal patterns.

A 2015 study published in the journal Neuropsychiatry Disease and Treatment looked at the adequacy of treatment protocols using Virtual Reality Exposure-Based therapy (VREBT) for the treatment of PTSD and the acceptability of its use in the health sector. Similar to the PLOS One 2012 study noted above, it found the therapy effective but there was still no clear established protocol to outline how many sessions are optimal in the treatment of PTSD.

The researchers point to the fact that prolonged imaginal exposure, in addition to psycho-education and controlled breathing exercises is effective for many individuals struggling with PTSD.

Roadblocks to success with this therapeutic approach are (a) difficulty imagining traumatic events and (b) having issues confronting feared and avoided memories. The treatment also appears to be underutilized in clinical practice.

This study acknowledged the potential of VR to treat a number of mental disorders because it allows the simulation of real-life situations and can create the illusion that users are engaged with real objects. VR allows people to feel safe (it’s an illusion but can feel real) while they effect change. It can modify behaviors, thoughts and emotions through the virtual experiences.

Another plus is the fact that the therapist has a significant amount of control. Given the Future 100 report, the technology is likely to become more popular and mainstream, but the challenge is to increase the number of clinicians who receive training to administer VR therapy. Guidelines for use including frequency and optimal number of sessions to create a standardized approach still need to be determined.

A 2017 NBC news report revealed how virtual reality is helping to heal soldiers with PTSD. Many soldiers opt to forgo a formal diagnosis because “seeing a shrink can ruin a (Marine) career,” and instead end up taking medications that often don’t help a whole lot. Those who do seek help from a psychiatrist often get diagnosed with PTSD and then get effective treatment in the form of VR. According to the report, currently 50 clinicians around the U.S. are trained to administer VR therapy.

According to a RAND report 18.5 percent of veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq have PTSD. Roughly half of those individuals will seek treatment, but only slightly more than half get adequate treatment. Improving access to quality care is crucial, and VR therapy can be cost-effective and help recovery rates.

If you or someone you know is struggling with PTSD, and are seeking a clinician who specializes in VR and/or exposure therapy, a good starting point is to contact a large medical system like the University of Southern California which offers VR to treat PTSD. If not geographically close to where you live, they can likely refer you to an institution or clinician closer to your home who treats PTSD.

See more helpful articles:

6 Apps to Help With PTSD

10 FAQs About PTSD

Types of Treatment for PTSD