Virtual Reality Now Being Used to Treat PTSD

A new form of treatment is emerging for PTSD patients: virtual reality. Skip Rizzo, director for medical VR at the USC Institute for Creative Technologies, told TechRepublic that VR can help people with PTSD experience fewer post traumatic memories and reduce their anxiety.

Rizzo said VR was first used to treat PTSD in 2003.

“We had a plan: to deliver exposure therapy using virtual reality, or an evidence-based approach designed to help a patient confront and process very difficult emotional memories in a safe environment,” said Rizzo.

People are put into simulations similar to their own experience, which gives them the opportunity to confront the experience and feel the anxiety. Over time and with increased exposure, the anxiety begins to fade and the user feels more empowered.

Rizzo said that clinical trials have shown that the treatment helps veterans return to their regular life. He notes that the memories are still there, but they are able to deal with these memories in healthier ways.

The team is also working on branching out into the civilian sector to help more people who have been impacted by trauma, including victims of terrorist attacks, law enforcement and victims of sexual trauma.

Another organization, UCF Restores, part of the University of Florida’s psychology department, is using VR to successfully treat veterans. A satellite version of the program will bring this treatment to Brevard County.

Their treatment program uses the same method as USC’s: exposure.

The UCF Restores program attempts to recreate the experience that triggered the PTSD as accurately as possible using sights, sounds and smells. The key to success is being able to recreate the scene as accurate as possible.

UCF has two programs: a 17-week outpatient program and a more intense 3-week program that offers daily sessions with clients.

The program has treated more than 350 veterans and about 100 first responders. About 67% of clients who complete the therapy no longer meet the PTSD criteria.

UCF Restores says patients aren’t completely cured, but their lives become much more manageable. Someone who had been having nightmares several times a week may only have one every few months after treatment, for example.

Thus far, treatments for PTSD in veterans has been somewhat limited. Some use medical marijuana to cope with the symptoms, while others enlist the help of a service dog. Horse therapy is also proving to be an effective treatment option.

With horse therapy, veterans spend two hours once a week interacting with specially trained horses. There’s no riding involved, and the interactions are supervised by mental health experts.

Traditional therapy is still an ongoing part of the treatment process, but many PTSD patients find their daily lives difficult to manage.

Supplemental therapies include yoga, meditation and even Tai Chi.

For some veterans, practices like Tai Chi have done more than just calmed nerves and reduced panic attacks. Some have been able to reduce or eliminate their pain medications. Others have quit smoking.

Many veterans are hooked on opioids, but alternative therapies are helping combat this growing problem – though not nearly fast enough.

Melissa Thompson
Melissa Thompson writes about a wide range of topics, revealing interesting things we didn't know before. She is a freelance USA Today producer, and a Technorati contributor.