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Can Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy combat PTSD?

Can Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy combat PTSD?

A radical emerging treatment is currently being tested by psychiatrists in the US Military Department of Defence to help returning soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan against combat-related post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Known as “virtual reality exposure therapy” (VRET), the treatment involves simulating traumatic warfare conditions in order to help soldiers suffering from PTSD to remember the cause of their trauma until the stress related to that situation is reduced. 

The study’s sample involves 120-servicemen and the project is funded by the United States Army Medical Research and Materiel Command. As part of the treatment, service members are exposed to a 360 degree computer-generated war zone for about 90 minutes.

By customising the simulated environment to the patient’s own experiences in a prolonged environment, he or she can face the trigger of their trauma until the anxiety related to the event subsides.

While the use of virtual technology might be new, the study builds on a long-established PTSD treatment that uses “imaginal” techniques where patients are asked to imagine and retell the traumatic situation responsible for their condition. However, such a technique is less affective for patients undergoing combat-related PTSD: due to their long and multiple deployments that could last for 12-15 months each, it is often difficult to recall the original traumatic event in sufficient detail.

The chief of T2’s Innovative Technology Applications, Dr Greg Reger, contends that this treatment is more effective for combat-induced PTSD because it enables patients to experience traumatic environments in as much detail as possible. He asks us to:

“Consider the difference between someone closing his eyes and imagining the situation versus someone who tells his story while the same type of event is occurring with the sights and sounds – it is so much more emotionally-engaging.”

Even though the treatment is still being developed, the US Department of Defence is increasing its VERT programmes. Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. and Naval Medical Center San Diego are conducting their own studies and some Veterans Affairs hospitals already beginning to introduce virtual reality programmes into therapy.

The use of virtual simulation as a form of therapy for combat-induced PTSD will be discussed at the Health Support Systems and Medical Logistics conference alongside other emerging technologies such electronic health records, integrated information systems and telemedicine that can save soldiers’ lives on and off the battlefield. The conference will be held at London on 28th – 29th October, 2010, CCT Canary Wharf, London, UK. For more information about the conference and complimentary interviews, articles and reports please visit: www.MilitaryHealthSupport.com.

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