A virtual breakthrough in sports rehabilitation

Israeli start-up VRPhysio at the forefront of harnessing gaming technology to help treat neck, spinal and other injuries.

VRPHYSIO FOUNDER Eran Orr presents his company’s virtual reality rehabilitation product at The BRIDGE Summit in Sydney, Australia, in late 2016. Inset: Prototype of the new VRPhysio headset that works in conjunction with a smartphone. (photo credit: Courtesy)
VRPHYSIO FOUNDER Eran Orr presents his company’s virtual reality rehabilitation product at The BRIDGE Summit in Sydney, Australia, in late 2016. Inset: Prototype of the new VRPhysio headset that works in conjunction with a smartphone.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Hundreds of millions of people from more than 150 countries throughout the world (in addition to a couple dozen on the International Space Station) tuned in on Sunday night to watch the New England Patriots take on the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI.
While the high-paced action and bone-crunching tackles certainly add to the allure of the National Football League and help consistently make the Super Bowl the highest-watched show of the year, there is a dark underbelly to the sport that probably was not the focus of the hours and hours of television coverage.
Put simply, tackle football is a high-energy contact sport that places its players at heightened risk for neck and cervical spine injuries (not to mention a whole host of neurological issues that can come along with multiple concussions and brain trauma).
Advances in tackling and blocking techniques, rules of the game, conditioning and medical care of athletes have been made throughout the past few decades to minimize the risk of injury and improve the management of injuries that do occur.
Nonetheless, neck and cervical spine injuries remain a serious concern in the game of tackle football, as well in all contact sports, such as hockey, rugby, and even basketball and soccer.
Sports injuries in this regard have a wide spectrum of severity, from the relatively common “stinger” to much more serious incidents that can even include paralysis or death.
And, of course, neck and cervical spine injuries are not limited to the sporting sphere.
Victims of car accidents, military injuries and pilots are just some of the thousands of people each year who suffer damage to their necks or spines that require surgery and/or severe rehabilitation.
And this is when it gets tricky.
Rehabilitation from any injury – as anyone who has ever had to undergo it can attest – is both a physically and mentally draining experience that, even at its best, can only be as effective as the effort put in by the patient.
The best doctors, nurses and physical therapist in the world can work their magic, but at the end of the day it will be up to the individual to put in the time and effort necessary to ensure that they maximize the healing process.
And while it may sound simple to say “unless I do my rehab properly, I will not heal fully, so of course I will diligently stick to my schedule and do all the exercises that I am told to do by the professionals,” the reality of human nature is not so straightforward.
Indeed, research indicates that when it comes to neck injuries, in particular, more than 80% of patients who begin the rehabilitation process do not achieve the optimal results solely due to them lagging in their prescribed rehabilitation program and schedules.
Whether out of annoyance, laziness, boredom, difficulty or other factors, what too often ends up happening is that patients who truly need the rehabilitation to help heal their bodies simply abandon their requisite routines and hinder their own healing.
That is where VRPhysio, an exciting new Israeli start-up, comes in.
Expanding on the exploding field of virtual reality in the industry of video gaming, VRPhysio has created a platform that makes physiotherapy exercises easily accessible and enjoyable to patients, while also being easily monitored and analyzed by doctors and physiotherapists.
The Jerusalem Post recently spoke with the founder of VRPhysio, Eran Orr, as well as had the opportunity to test the VRPhysio virtual reality headset and rehabilitating gaming experience.
Ultimately, while not dealing with a specific injury to rehab, it is hard not to come away impressed at the endless potential that VRPhysio has untapped for harnessing this “fun” technology in such a creative and beneficial fashion.
In discussing how he came up with the initial idea, Orr spoke of his experiences in the Israel Defense Forces.
“Four years ago, after finishing a routine flight duty in my F-16 Squadron, I started feeling a sharp pain in my right hand. After a while, the pain grew and spread from the neck down and I couldn’t sleep without painkillers, or even hold my six-month-old daughter in my arms. Naturally, I was grounded from active flight duties in the IAF.
“I was diagnosed with a cervical herniated neck as a result of active flights, and I discovered that my injury could have been prevented if I had done preventative workouts prior to flying. I decided to initiate and coordinate a preventative workout program in the IAF so young pilots will not suffer similar experiences.”
It was during the tireless hours of rehab that Orr became the most frustrated.
“During my rehabilitation process I discovered that I couldn’t keep up with the neck physical therapy homework exercises, no matter how motivated I was, and that my physical therapist had no way to monitor or guide me once I left his clinic.
“When I tried convincing young IAF pilots to do preventative exercises it did not work either.
“As a result of these personal experiences, I decided to connect physical therapy and virtual reality technology, in a manner that will allow people do preventative exercises or physical therapy exercises while playing enjoyable games.”
Virtual reality typically refers to computer technologies that use software to generate the realistic images, sounds and other sensations that replicate a real environment (or create an imaginary setting), and simulate a user’s physical presence in this environment.
VR has been defined as “a realistic simulation of a three-dimensional environment, created using interactive software and hardware, and experienced or controlled by movement of the body,” or as an “immersive, interactive experience generated by a computer.”
A person using virtual reality equipment is typically able to “look around” the artificial world, move about in it and interact with features or items that are depicted on a screen or in goggles. Most 2017-era virtual realities are displayed either on a computer monitor, a projector screen, or with a virtual reality headset (also called head-mounted display or HMD) operated through a smartphone, which is what VRPhysio uses.
As Orr explains, “VRPhysio develops a virtual reality rehabilitation platform that ‘gamifies’ physical therapy and makes it a fun experience. We monitor the exercises, measure progress and provide a full report upon completion, which keeps patients on-track and motivated on the path of full recovery.”
The potential breadth of such a system is seemingly endless when it comes to treatment of a multitude of injuries, as well as preventative exercises.
“Our first device will address all neck injuries, and particularly whiplash injuries resulted from car accidents or sports injuries,” notes Orr. “We also plan launching our full-body training kit in early 2017, which will include fullbody – shoulders, arms, legs etc. – software and wearables.”
The basic “hook” concept of the VRPhysio product, which becomes immediately apparent upon using it for the first time, is that it makes the user feel that they are playing a game that they actually enjoy rather than doing rehabilitation. The body motions that the various game options require to play are actually programmed to replicate the exercise regimen that has been prescribed for their rehab.
VRPhysio’s product is FDA approved in America (Class 2 Device; 510(K) exemption) and has been implemented by the Israeli Air Force as a mandatory, preemptive program for F-16 pilots who suffer recurring neck injuries.
It took years and intense work in the laboratory with doctors, trainers and technicians to perfect the system.
“The first step was to design a VR experience that will guide users to do the right movements in the real world, while not feeling they are doing boring physical therapy exercises, but rather playing a fun VR game,” said Orr. “The next stage was adding additional weights to increase resistance, improve the rehabilitation process and make it more efficient.
“Finally, we tailor-made the system by allowing physical therapists to change the VR experience of patients according to each patient’s individual needs, both online or offline.”
Education is perhaps the biggest challenge that VRPhysio has faced.
“Most people still fail to understand that VR technology, with respect to tele-rehabilitation, is “a different animal” than any other rehabilitation technology currently existing. In order to understand the difference, you simply need to try it. Marketing materials or lectures simply does not capture the VR rehabilitation experience.”
Indeed, the beauty of the VR platform is that it totally disconnects the patient from his or her surroundings and exclusively focuses them on their rehabilitation exercises.
Doctors and physical therapists love it because they can monitor and measure the progress of the patient through the information stored on the VRPhysio cloud-based platform.
Taking NFL players as an example, after hard, ongoing tackles on the field, every player will suffer from a whiplash syndrome, which will be treated with painkillers and one-on-one treatment with his team’s trainer.
After initial rehabilitation treatments, the player will need to get back and be mobile in a steady pace according to what his physical therapist instructs.
The first use of the VRPhysio device will be in the clinic, and then after setting up his program, the player will be able to continue the rehabilitation at his own home using his own smartphone and the VRPhysio headset, all under the guidance and supervision of his healthcare professional online.
VRPhysio is planning to launch its products in selected clinics and elite sports teams in the Boston area – where Orr is based – during the first quarter of 2017. By the end of 2017, the company’s goal is to have VRPhysio devices in use in every clinic and rehabilitation center across the East Coast of the US.
When it comes to future expansion, Orr is extremely optimistic.
“We strongly believe that in the near future the VR platform will become an industry-standard for quality and enjoyable physical therapy.”
The staggering difference between sitting in a therapist’s office doing rehab (and then procrastinating on the home exercises) vs sitting on your couch playing video games to help heal makes it easy to see how this product will sell itself.
As Orr maintains, “VR is the future of rehabilitation, and VRPhysio is the leader of this revolution.”
To learn more about VRPhysio and its product, please visit www.vrphysio.com