Virtual reality therapy for PTSD remains in its early stages

In this day and age, technology has made a handful of inventions and discoveries, stemming from the bing of a pager to the features on a smartphone. Aside from the cutesy, fun playthings, there are considerable technological breakthroughs in the medical field, including the use of virtual reality for those who suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder.

An estimated eight million adults suffer from PTSD every year, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. In many cases, trauma can stem from the death or harm of a loved one, or dangerous experiences and disasters.

Mark Dust, a veteran of the Iraq war and part-time lecturer in the Department of Health Science,  served as an infantryman in Baghdad from 2005 to 2006. During his time in Iraq, Dust said that improvised explosive devices were buried in trash on the side of the road.

“I had my wife and the minivan, I have kids who are going to Disneyland, but I reacted to the trash on the side of the road as if it were a real threat. So I slammed on the gas, swerved out of the kill zone and accelerated out of there,” Dust said. “You react abnormally to a normal situation, so then your nervous system is always keyed up and is looking for threats.”

People generally have fears and phobias, but those who have been diagnosed with PTSD continue to feel anxiety and terror although they are no longer in a dangerous situation.

According to the The Nebraska Department of Veterans Affairs, symptoms of PTSD must be evident for over a month before a diagnosis can be made. These symptoms include fits of rage, irritability, trouble sleeping, upsetting flashbacks, difficulty concentrating, isolation from others and substance abuse.

When a patient goes through exposure therapy with virtual reality, they are guided by a therapist who controls what they see and hear. The patient also experiences vibrations and the program can even simulate smells.

“Strictly from a combat environment, in virtual reality, you can’t stimulate the stresses that you’ve been under like the lack of sleep, the combat patrols on a daily basis and the constant state of being under the threat of attack,” Dust said.

The therapist controls how aggressive the simulation is as they observe the subject’s reactions.

The therapist controls how aggressive to make the software toward the patient as they observe the subject’s reactions.

Patients are forced to go through their horrifying experiences over and over again in an effort to learn how to overcome and cope with their trauma. Although it is a prolonged process and patients are carefully exposed to the experience, there is still a more than 50 percent dropout rate, and the treatment leaves many veterans “violent, suicidal and depressed,” an article from Slate reported.

Virtual reality is a bold new innovation in exposure therapy. Although it may not work for many, Dust said continuous research and testing may help virtual reality become a better alternative for those who suffer in terror.

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