Virtual reality helps people with spinal cord injury receiving rehabilitation

Researchers have explored the impact of natural environments delivered via virtual reality on the psycho-emotional health of people with spinal cord injury

It is estimated that around 12,000 Australians have a spinal cord injury (SCI), with up to 400 new cases reported each year. A world-first study now shows that exposure to virtual natural environments creates favourable health outcomes for people with SCI.

“A SCI is damage to the spinal cord that can result in a loss of mobility and/or feeling,” explains lead researcher, Dr Ali Lakhani. “It can result in the complete paralysis of the lower, or upper and lower, parts of the body. In most instances, long-term hospital rehabilitation is needed to help those who experience an SCI manage their condition.”

People receiving hospital rehabilitation for SCI have limited access to recreational activities. “This can lead to poor emotional health from the acute stage of injury until transition to the community, and potentially adversely affect quality of life in the longer term,” says Lakhani.

In partnership with Leisure Therapists from Metro South Health (Queensland Health) and Peer Support Officers working with disability support agency Spinal Life Australia – and with funding support from The Hopkins Centre, Menzies Health Institute and Griffith University –  the research team explored the impact of natural environments delivered via virtual reality (VR) on the psycho-emotional health of people with SCI in hospital. “We also examined the impact of multiple VR sessions on the depressive symptoms of people with SCI in hospital,” adds Lakhani.

The team found that engaging with virtual natural environments had a beneficial impact on the psycho-emotional health of participants in the short-term. Levels of happiness, relaxation and feeling good were significantly higher after each VR session.

“These findings have important clinical implications,” says Lakhani. “There is potential for simulated natural environments delivered via VR to be incorporated into traditional rehabilitation settings. For example, physiotherapy or occupational therapy programs could deliver therapeutic exercises in a virtual natural setting – perhaps resulting in functional gain while improving psycho-emotional health.”

The project has added to the evidence-base for VR-delivered recreational programs that can be considered for implementation across health and hospital services. “This research also forms the basis for future studies that will explore the impact of other recreational interventions, including visual art and meditation, on the health and wellbeing of people receiving rehabilitation in hospital and health services,” adds Lakhani.

“This research is important as it was informed by the lived-experience of people with SCI and Allied Health professionals. It supports the notion that collaborative research can provide evidence which informs practice.”