Is virtual reality the future of eating disorder treatment?
Eating disorders have always been notoriously hard to treat, with many people requiring inpatient treatment, long-term counseling, and potentially medication to eventually achieve recovery. However, a new report suggests that eating disorder treatment could one day utilize virtual reality (VR) to more effectively treat individuals in safe, controlled environments.
The report is the result of efforts by Sofian Berrouiguet, MD, from France’s University Hospital of Brest, who analyzed more than 300 studies focusing on the use of VR in treating eating disorders.
According to their findings, VR is already giving doctors unique advantages to traditional eating disorder treatment.
“The virtual environment makes it possible to control the unexpected and to be exposed in a safe environment to certain fears that may be difficult to reproduce in real situations,” study co-author Barbara Peran told Healthcare Analytics News.
Despite this, Peran notes that VR has several hurdles to overcome before being widely accepted and utilized in the medical community. The biggest limitation is simply lack of training among therapists and physicians, but this is compounded by the expensive of the equipment (most VR headsets cost hundreds of dollars alone and require proprietary software to fully utilize). Additionally, some users report “simulation sickness” which can feel similar to motion sickness.
The researchers say they worked with relatively little data because there has been little research directly addressing the use of VR to treat eating disorders. This led the team to use data from several clinical trials including very small subject pools. Some studies included just a single individual.
While it is clear there is significantly more research needed to investigate exactly how effective VR-based treatments for eating disorders may be, the researchers say some studies found significant signs of advancement – especially when combined with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
Using VR, CBT specialists can expose patients to specific stimuli in safe environments, where the therapist can then teach the patient specific strategies to manage the response. There is also evidence that VR can be used to help recontextualize negative body images and body-based anxieties.
Studies into this these types of treatments found that patients experienced less loss to follow-up, indicating they had regressed less in between sessions. The researchers concede part of this may be related to the “attractiveness of new technologies,” but they note patients also exhibited an “increased motivation for change” when using VR-based therapies.
It will likely be at least a few more years before VR technologies are widely used to treat eating disorders, but reports like this latest analysis show virtual reality provides clinicians with unique ways to treat patients in real-world scenarios and experiences while staying within the confines of a safe, controlled environment.