Virtual reality could uncover hidden clues to patient falls

Man with VR headset on
New research shows how virtual reality could be the key to unlocking fall risks.

Using virtual reality to disrupt a person’s sense of balance, researchers may have stumbled upon a new method to identify imperceptible fall risks among elderly patients and perhaps improve balance. 

Although it may seem counterintuitive, researchers the University of North Carolina and NC State used virtual reality to disorient study participants as they walked on a treadmill. By recording their movements, the research team of biomedical engineers was able to identify specific muscle responses that contributed to loss of balance.

The results, published in the Nature Scientific Reports, showed that participants altered their gait to take wider, shorter steps, as expected. But electrodes attached to subjects identified specific muscle movements that affected posture and foot placement.

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“We think there’s a big opportunity to use visual perturbations in a VR setting to reveal balance impairments that would not be detected in conventional testing or normal walking,” Jason R. Franz, PhD, assistant professor in the Joint UNC/NC State department of biomedical engineering said in a press release. “The key is to challenge balance during walking, to tease out those impairments that exist under the surface.”

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Virtual reality could be particularly helpful in understanding the fall risks associated with elderly patients and patients with degenerative illnesses. Patient falls have been a long-running concern for healthcare providers because of the high costs and subsequent care that follow. Some hospitals have even turned to video monitoring systems to replace patient sitters and prevent falls.