Virtual reality therapy gaining momentum on Long Island

Technological advancements allow patients to use virtual reality headsets as a form of exposure therapy pain management.

By Neda Karimi and Nirvani Williams

Recent advancements in technology have made Virtual Reality setups more affordable for clinical psychologists and residents on Long Island to use for exposure therapy and pain management. Though few seem to be aware of how versatile the technology has become.

Clinical Psychologist Dr. Howard Gurr has been following virtual reality or VR therapy for fifteen years. He stated that in the field of psychology it takes twenty years for a therapeutic tool to be commonly used because of insufficient research and the reluctance of psychologists to incorporate something they lack full comprehension of in their practice.

“Even 10 years ago, it cost $30,000 to set up a virtual reality rig,” Sean Sullivan, PsyD, stated in a February report for the American Psychology Association. “Now that virtual reality can be delivered through mobile technologies, you can do it on a cellphone with a $70 headset. For the first time, it’s really accessible.”

It wasn’t until four years ago when Dr. Gurr himself was able to offer it as a form of exposure therapy to treat anxieties and phobias.

Others, like 71-year-old Robert Jester, use it as a method to alleviate pain. When Jester, a local chimney sweeper in Greenport, fell from a chimney while on work and broke 19 bones, he was left paralyzed from the waist down.

Determined to get off of opioids, Jester set out to search for alternative methods to relieve his pain after transferring rehabilitation centers from RUSK Rehabilitation Center in Manhattan to Peconic Landing in Greenport.

“When I got there, I told them I wanted to get away from that,” Jester said. “I noticed that some of the things I used to laugh about, I wasn’t laughing about anymore.”

His search didn’t get far. Jester, who was a former science teacher, was just about ready to give up tutoring biology to Joey McInnis, a young boy he had met while cleaning chimneys. He told Joey’s father, Robert McInnis, he could no longer deal with the pain.

After conducting some research in the hope of helping Jester, it was McInnis who came across a California-based company called Applied VR.

“I was on Mashable and there was an article on it about VR technology, pain, and help with pain,” McInnis said. “I wrote the president and told him about Robert.”

Within ten minutes, President Josh Sackman responded to McInnis and shipped him a VR headset for Jester.  

“We also know that there is a large amount of chronic pain sufferers in their homes that we are trying to reach,” Mathieu Wauters, director of sales at Applied VR who worked with Sackman to help Jester, said. “We are working to reach more people like Bob in the very near future.”

While Jester tried to watch simulations at least once a day, it was oftentimes more. He kept records of how much medication he was taking in relation to how much he was using VR.

“What I noticed was I was taking less and less pain medication and finally got it down to zero,”  Jester said.

Once the brain is distracted, Dr. Gurr explains, it doesn’t recognize other pains as significant.

There’s a loop,” Dr. Gurr said. “The pain is in your brain and your brain then sends a signal back there and you’re like ‘oh that’s where the pain is.’ If you shut that loop off, you don’t feel the pain.”

Using his VR headset, Jester is able to focus most of his attention on the adventure of going somewhere or seeing something different.

“There was one that was animated, but you would swear it was real,” Jester said about a simulation where he got to fly The Wright Brothers aircraft. He notes it as one of his favorites. “You could look down and see cows underneath you and land safely.”

McInnis stressed the need for Jester to be in a pilot program for pain management to further his healing process.  

VR is an underutilized technology that more people should be looking to, Jester said. According to Dr. Gurr, less than one percent of psychologists use virtual reality. When he began offering VR therapy at his Bellmore office, his biggest obstacle was getting the word out.

“People just don’t know it exists,” Dr. Gurr said. “Even psychologists. I’ll talk to people and they’ll say really? That’s what you’re doing?”

Young people especially are missing the boat, Jester said.

“There’s a program for teaching autistic kids with how to be approached by a police officer or how to cross streets safely,” Dr. Gurr said. “Ultimately, that’s where VR Therapy is headed, having an avatar in the environment that kind of reacts with you.”

About Neda Karimi 6 Articles
Neda Karimi is a dual major in Journalism and Political Science at Stony Brook University. Her specialties are politics and feature writing. She is the Business Manager of the Stony Brook Press.