Virtual physical therapy? Sounds like an oxymoron.
But it’s for real, and Eran Orr of XRHealth is on a mission to make it a more common treatment option in health care.
When Orr founded the Boston-based startup, he had a vision for better physical therapy. The former Israeli Air Force pilot was suffering from whiplash, and he dreamt of a data-driven, flexible treatment option that would work better for his needs.
So, in 2016, Orr made the leap and launched XRHealth, in hopes of offering physical therapy to patients through “extended reality,” which includes augmented reality, virtual reality, and mixed reality.
It works like this: People in need of certain types of physical or recovery therapy — those with chronic pain, autism spectrum disorder, or Parkinson’s disease, for example — can meet with XRHealth’s team of clinicians virtually for a one-hour screening session. After determining a diagnosis and treatment plan, XRHealth ships a virtual reality headset (made by HTC Vive) programmed with various applications, developed by XRHealth, to the patient.
But what makes physical therapy in virtual reality better than standard treatment options? According to Stephanie Quigley, who used XRHealth to treat a back injury in 2020, the convenience of being home was a selling point.
“I don’t think I ever would have gone to a physical therapist as often as I saw this physical therapist because it was virtual,” Quigley said. “I did two sessions a week for a while. And I don’t think I would have gotten in my car, driven somewhere, done the program, and come home twice a week. It was so convenient to just be in my home, turn on the camera, and go.”
Quigley is one of about 5,000 patients who have used XRHealth so far. Each VR program is tailored based on the needs of the patient. Someone with chronic shoulder pain might use the “balloon popping” program — think Fruit Ninja, but your arms do the slicing — where users move their arms in ways that can be customized by the clinician. Someone recovering from post-traumatic stress might find the deep-sea meditation application helpful — it prompts meditation while you’re underwater, surrounded by virtual fish, in an effort to calm the user.
The programs developed by XRHealth are monitored by clinicians when patients are undergoing therapy. Some clinicians opt to watch the patient through a video call as they play games, meditate, or use other apps.
It’s not for everyone, though. Some might need more rigorous or intense therapy options that require close, in-person monitoring. Others might be at risk of motion sickness or dizziness. Others may prefer to be physically present with their therapist. But patients who fit the bill say the benefits go beyond convenience.
“It just made it so fun,” Quigley said of the technology. “And then afterwards, I realized I felt actually a lot better.”
One of the challenges facing XRHealth is ensuring public trust. The company recently published a study that demonstrates that “virtual reality technology is viable in treating upper limb dysfunction in multiple sclerosis patients,” according to a release. The study observed 30 individuals using VR training solutions and found that “virtual reality training would be viable” for 26 of the 30 patients.
As virtual and augmented reality technologies expand, Orr thinks the use cases for health care will grow.
“I think we have the potential to become – let’s call it the hospital of the metaverse,” Orr said, referring to the virtual world. “What we’re trying to build is a platform that enables the clinician to treat the patient in the metaverse, but not just as a gimmick, but as a real modality of care.”