Dr. James Thomas, Professor of Physical Therapy in Ohio University’s College of Health Sciences and Professions’ School of Rehabilitation and Communication Sciences, and Dr. Christopher France, Distinguished Professor of Psychology, have received a grant from the National Institutes of Health to expand on their previous research seeking to help patients suffering from chronic back pain find relief through virtual reality video games.
The researchers started their five-year VIGOR study (Virtual Immersive Gaming to Optimize Recovery) this August thanks to the $2.8 million grant from the National Institutes of Health. The award will allow their multi-disciplinary team, including co-investigators Drs. Bruce Carlson, Peter Pidcoe, Stevan Walkowski, and Timothy Law, to study mobility and recovery outcomes of patients with low back pain after a course of treatment that involves immersive games like virtual dodgeball.
“We’ll have 230 people and we’re going to follow them through a nine-week intervention,” said Thomas. “This is substantially longer than our previous pilot study, which was only three days.”
Part of the grant will be used to develop a fitness tracker to monitor baseline activity levels and tools to make the experience more immersive, including haptic technology on participants’ arms and legs that will simulate being hit by a dodgeball. These will be developed by Dr. Pidcoe of Virginia Commonwealth University.
“Our game is designed to help people with back pain who have a hard time recovering because they are afraid of moving,” France said. “The virtual reality game is designed to encourage them to gradually increase movement while reducing their concern about harming their back.”
The VIGOR Study follows France’s and Thomas’s previous NIH grant exploring the potential for virtual reality games in back pain recovery. In 2015, their LEARNING study received an R21 award for $470,000 as a pilot program for VIGOR. As it became increasingly likely that they would secure a more extensive R01 grant to expand the LEARNING study, Thomas said, enthusiasm for the study grew in the community.
With the cost of treating back pain swelling to $90 billion annually in the U.S., Thomas said there is a premium on providing virtual reality solutions that are affordable.
“What we would envision would be to have a suite of games that could go to the clinic,” Thomas said. “Most likely, with the technology and its rapid advancement, VR would powerful enough and sufficient enough to have in a home environment.”