INNOVATION

Virtual Reality And Music Therapy Are Helping Quadriplegics To Breathe Easy

A powerful fusion of music and technology.

15/11/2016 4:40 PM AEDT | Updated 16/11/2016 11:11 AM AEDT
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Music just became a little more powerful.

There's nothing more soulful nor satisfying than singing around a campfire with friends whilst the (most) talented musician among you strums your favourite tune.

For those with severe spinal injuries, recreating the above scene could have far-reaching benefits that can aid them in their recovery.

"We often get referrals for patients who, after their injury, struggle with their breathing. In addition to not being able to use their arms and legs, their injuries can affect their ability to use some of the main muscles that we all use when we breathe," music therapist Dr Jeanette Tamplin told The Huffington Post Australia.

Tamplin has been working in neurorehabilitation with spinal injury patients for 10 years.

There are so many potential applications of it from a health and therapy perspective. We'd be crazy not to consider how to harness that.

She is leading a team of researchers at the University of Melbourne who are aiming to bring quadriplegic patients together for therapy sessions in a virtual settings.

The aim? To help them to breathe easy.

"We use breathing exercises, vocal exercises and singing to help rehabilitate their ability to control their breath," Tamplin said.

"We performed a clinical trial that compared patients who sung with those who got together in music groups and talked about music, finding an improvement in those who were singing."

But accessibility became an obstacle in Tamplin's research. Enter virtual reality.

Working with technicians at the University of Melbourne's Networked Society Institute, Tamplin and her team are developing an online platform to reinvent singing interventions for quadriplegic patients. And they are workshopping various applications of virtual reality technology to do so. Like camp fires.

"The idea is to refine what we know in a virtual setting. The aim would be for four or five patients with spinal injuries to hook into an online session where we will perform the same singing and vocal exercises," Tamplin said.

These patients tend to not be confident singers in the first place. They have found this approach to be much less confronting.

"Rather then having a group of people coming together in hospital -- which is always tricky -- they will be doing so at home, in virtual spaces."

In its early stages, the project is bringing welcomed benefits.

"These patients tend to not be confident singers in the first place. They have found this approach to be much less confronting," Tamplin said.

"The peer support and the social connection is also incredibly important for this population -- and other clinical populations -- that are at risk of social isolation and depression. It's mood enhancing."

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Virtual reality is making strides in clinical settings.

Looking forward, Tamplin and her team are preparing for a second clinical trial to test whether the outcomes, benefits and costs of the project mirror those of face-to-face therapy.

And she believes the fusion of virtual reality technology and clinical work is just beginning.

"Virtual reality is already acceptable and as more types of equipment are developed, it is becoming more accessible, affordable and user-friendly.

"There are so many potential applications of it from a health and therapy perspective. We'd be crazy not to consider how to harness that."

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