Can Virtual Reality Really Help Injured Workers with Pain, PTSD and Other Conditions?

At National Comp 2021, attendees heard firsthand from a PTSD survivor how virtual reality can be used to treat workplace trauma and pain.
By: | November 19, 2021

For Tyler Wright, sheriff’s deputy with Florida Law Enforcement, the anxiety and flashbacks that came with PTSD were becoming unbearable.

Wright had responded to traumatic incidents throughout his career —  violent homicides, suicides, child sexual abuse investigations — but one two-month period in particular stuck with him. During that time, he was involved in a shooting and he responded to a car crash where he crawled through flames in an attempt to recover the family who had been in the vehicle.

After these incidents, he began experiencing nightmares and flashbacks. He remembers standing in the kitchen one day preparing breakfast for his daughter and feeling transported back to the crash.

“I would think, ‘please, don’t let me die,” he said. “I was deemed unable to return to work, because of the trauma and the ramifications of that trauma, and how it bled over to my personal life.”

Though he had been to therapists through his employer’s employee assistance program, Wright found that they were often unequipped to handle the severe traumas he had been through. They were used to dealing with personal problems like divorces or financial trouble, not the emotional struggles of a man who had crawled through a burning car in an effort to save lives. “I felt like I was traumatizing her,” he said.

Out of desperation, Wright turned to a new treatment method: virtual reality.

Developed by Harvard MedTech, the 90-day treatment plan he followed uses virtual reality headsets to help calm his PTSD symptoms and re-train his brain to prevent further trauma responses.

Wright shared his experiences during a panel discussion at National Comp this past October alongside Dr. Gerry Stanley, senior vice president and chief medical officer, Harvard MedTech; Dr. Adam Seidner, chief medical officer for The Hartford; and Stephen Fisher, advisor to the CEO, Chesapeake Employers Insurance Company.

The session, “A Closer Look at How Virtual Reality Produces Real Results for Injured Workers,” looked into how the treatments work and whether the expert panelists could see it being embraced by the industry at-large.

Treating Pain and Trauma from the Inside Out

Harvard MedTech was founded in 2016, by Shan Padda. The company uses a mix of digital and virtual reality treatments, behavioral health interventions and psychosocial support to help retrain the brain’s neural pathways and alleviate the effects of trauma.

“We’re at the tip of the iceberg of really understanding what the brain can do.” — Dr. Gerry Stanley, senior vice president and chief medical officer, Harvard MedTech

Padda founded the company because he was interested in the role of the brain in regulating pain and whether virtual reality treatments could serve as a substitute for pain medications, particularly opioids. Studies have found that pain reprocessing therapy (PRT), which is focused on retraining the brain’s neural pathways, can help people experiencing pain.

In one case, 66% of patients with back pain who received PRT were nearly or fully pain-free by the end of the study and 98% experienced some improvement, University of Colorado at Boulder research found. These results were largely maintained a year later. Another study found that just 15 minutes of virtual reality therapy was enough to reduce pain in patients.

Dr. Gerry Stanley, senior vice president and chief medical officer, Harvard MedTech

“We’re at the tip of the iceberg of really understanding what the brain can do,” Stanley said.

Harvard MedTech takes a similar approach to treating both pain and trauma by reprogramming the brain’s neural pathways. Their virtual reality treatments help patients focus on something other than their conditions by immersing them in calming, digital environments.

Users can wander the vast fields of a farmstead or visit the babbling waters of a creek. They can join fish for a swim in the ocean, relax on a Moldavian beach, or explore the city of London all from the comfort of their home.

The system guides patients through corrective exercises that help rewire the brain’s neural pathways away from trauma and pain responses and toward healthier responses. Additionally, the program uses data collected from the system and artificial intelligence to gain insight into the patient’s behavior that mental health clinicians can use to help develop and refine treatment plans.

“We use virtual reality to engage patients dealing with workplace trauma, and we couple that with specific behavioral health interventions, with the goal of getting patients back to normal,” Stanley said.

In one peer-reviewed study of patients who experience debilitating chronic pain as a result of workplace injuries, headset use reduced pain levels by 40% on average. More impressive, that pain relief typically lasted for 2.8 hours post-treatment.

The relief from virtual reality rippled into other treatment areas as well — 69% of patients reported either a decrease or a complete cessation of opioid use.

Stanley and others at Harvard MedTech soon realized their technology had applications beyond patients with chronic pain. Their headsets are being used on cancer patients and those like Wright who have experienced PTSD or other traumas.

Will Workers’ Comp Embrace Virtual Reality?

In Stanley’s view, the data is clear. Virtual reality can help workers overcome pain and trauma from common workplace injuries that lead to chronic pain.

But the question remains, will workers’ comp — often a laggard when it comes to adopting new technologies — embrace it?

“There’s a lot of potential there to not just replace negative images in that moment, but also to reform some of the memories that caused [these reactions],” Fisher said.

During the panel, Seidner and Fisher detailed the ways they thought the workers’ comp industry might come to embrace new tools like virtual reality in the care of injured workers.

One of the hurdles they anticipate is that many in the industry will want to know when this treatment is appropriate for patients and when other less costly therapies may work better.

“I think it’s important that we keep our minds open to new technologies,” Seidner said.

“One of the things I think we have to understand is what you’re seeing is the process of science and how we get the information that basically allows us to know who’s eligible for the technology, and who really should stay away from it.”

Wright, whose PTSD was a direct result of his experiences as a police officer, appreciated that the virtual reality treatments did not take the cookie-cutter approach to worker health that is so often seen in treatments for workers’ comp injuries.

As part of the program, Harvard MedTech has patients set three personal goals and use the treatment to work towards them as a way of keeping the worker motivated, rather than just using return-to-work as the hallmark of a successful recovery.

“I know they have many patients, but from day one that virtual reality therapy was so focused on my care,” Wright said.

Though he has graduated from the program, he still finds the behavioral health therapy techniques and the memories of his virtual reality experiences valuable tools in reducing his anxiety.

“I know I can close my eyes and go back to that field with that tree,” he said. &

Courtney DuChene is a freelance journalist based in Philadelphia. She can be reached at [email protected].