CASE STUDY: Can VR help my wife recover from a life changing accident?

In August 2011, over two years before we met, my wife had an accident on the way to work.

She tripped on a tree root that was growing through the pavement, as we’ve all likely done at one time or another. It wasn’t especially remarkable or dramatic and should have, by all accounts, been largely forgotten by now.

Except that, for reasons no-one really understands, Libby is never allowed to forget. As a result of the accident she went on to develop a condition called Complex Regional Pain Syndrome. The pain of the ligaments tearing will never go away. In fact, it has intensified, and it is always there.

Every moment of every day she has pain equivalent to that felt upon the amputation of a digit surging through her left leg. And there’s little doctors can do.

She’s heavily medicated, but has to try and keep it at a level where on the one hand it’s helping to alleviate the pain, but on the other hand she’s able to function. She has a spinal cord stimulator implant embedded into the base of her back that uses electrical impulses to help disrupt the pain signals a little.

On a good day she’s able to get about using crutches or her wheelchair, do some things around the house, maybe even go out in the car. On a bad day simply getting to the toilet is a herculean task, the strain from which can lead to vomiting and migraines.

As well as the moment-to-moment struggle, Libby has had to contend with loss. So much loss. More than you or I could likely ever understand. Her career, first as a TV producer and then as a corporate charity fundraiser, was taken from her. The ability to travel and see the world? Largely gone. Ongoing study, her choir group, the gym, strolls on the beach, playing with our daughter in the garden – not impossible, but severely limited.

The combination of pain and the spectres of life lost could destroy a lesser person. But you haven’t met my wife!

VR struck me as a possible tool through which Libby could perhaps begin to sample tasters of some of the experiences that have been robbed from her. HTC was kind enough to lend us a Vive for a week, and the experience for Libby was quite remarkable.

I expected it to be interesting, to be an experience that I hadn’t had before. But I didn’t expect it to be so totally immersive. I thought it would require more of a leap of imagination to make it seem real. I thought I’d have to work to buy into it,” Libby tells me.

I was really surprised at how completely real it felt. I genuinely felt transported to another place. I didn’t expect that level of immersion. Things like the quality of the graphics, the depth of field, the tracking – that was absolutely perfect. It felt organic and natural and not fake at all.”

One element of Libby’s condition is the effect on the brain’s neuroplasticity. As a result of the pain, the wiring of the brain physically changes, with pain associations cropping up where they should not. For her, just thinking about walking, or even simply looking at pictures of legs, can cause a strong enough mental association for it to trigger a pain response.

A VR experience that simulates walking, therefore, did indeed have the expected pain response. But that isn’t a reason to stop. On the contrary, there is likely much therapeutic merit to increased exposure to such experiences, as doing so could be a start to correcting some of the brain’s faulty wiring.

Libby adds: I’ve tried mirror box therapy, which tricks the brain by placing your good limb into a mirrored box so you see a direct reflection, which looks like your bad limb. Moving the good one then tricks the brain into seeing
the bad one moving. The premise is you fool your brain into thinking the bad limb is moving normally and happily. VR could be used for this very well. It could be very effective.”

That’s just the start of the possible applications for Libby, however. She’s already looking forward to a time where VR could help plug the social gap that she now faces. Were she to wake to find the pain too high to attend an event, perhaps VR could facilitate a way for her to attend virtually.

Disabled people can be housebound and lonely. VR could definitely help,” Libby speculates. I could also imagine lot of uses for mental health – visualisation, meditation, various things.

I’d like to see more stuff like TheBlu [underwater VR demo], that would enable me to travel the world. At the moment that experience isn’t exactly the same, and maybe they’ll never be quite as good as the real thing, but it will definitely reach the stage where it’s a meaningful approximation of real-life.

The gaming part of VR was probably the least important element for me. I have lots of access to games already, but I don’t have lots of access to the outside world, and those are the experiences that VR can offer that appeal the most, for me and for many others. I think it’s realistic to say that 10 years in the future most households will have a VR headset of some kind.”

Certainly I get great excitement thinking about the experiences VR could allow us to share in the future. You and your partner may take for granted the ability to stroll down the Champs-Elysees or take a trip on a gondola in Venice. For Libby and I such things are, if not an impossible dream, then certainly a logistical challenge. The thought that I could share these experiences with the woman I love is tremendously exciting. Providing I can drag myself away from Space Pirate Trainer, that is.

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