The Motor Control Lab on campus is using virtual reality to learn more about chronic pain and physical therapy. With any luck, this could translate into new at-home therapy options in the near future.

The basic office space in the Motor Control Lab on the second floor of Grover Center has the room for a basketball court complete with hundreds of fans and a dojo covered in hardwood. 

That is possible only when wearing an Oculus Rift DK2 headset, or 3-D glasses.

The Motor Control Lab is utilizing the power of virtual reality to learn more about chronic lower back pain and the effects of virtual reality on motion and performance. The lab is working on two different studies: the LEARNING study and the FLAG study.

The studies begin with the subject putting on athletic wear equipped with Velcro strips. Motion sensors are attached to several joints and locations such as the elbows, head and the back. 

“The goal of (the LEARNING study) is to understand how people with chronic low back pain move in a gaming environment,” Megan Applegate, study coordinator and doctoral student in interdisciplinary studies, said.

The LEARNING study stands for: Lumbar Excursion Activities Reinforced through Novel INteractive Gaming. The FLAG study stands for: Fitts' Law Assessment in Gaming.

While wearing the headset, he or she must dodge or block balls thrown at them by virtual foes. The user holds a dodgeball to block virtual balls as if in a real game of dodgeball.

Ohio University physical therapy professor James Thomas and distinguished professor of psychology Christopher France oversee the LEARNING study.

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The FLAG study focuses on Fitts' Law, which tries to measure the time required to move to an area by the distance and width of a target, Applegate said. To test this, the player must reach out and touch targets that appear at varying levels without reaching out too far in virtual space. 

“With a really big target, you can move as fast as you want, and you can still get there and not miss it,” Thomas, who is also director of the Motor Control Lab, said. “As the target gets smaller, if you try to go as fast as you can, you’re going to overshoot it, or you’re going to have larger errors.”

Thomas said people use their lower backs for everyday movement such as ringing a doorbell or wiping a baby's face. Because the back is so crucial to movement, it is important to learn how the back functions, especially in people who experience chronic back pain, he said. 

When the studies have concluded, Thomas said the lab will hopefully have the data it needs to make assertions about chronic back pain, movement and how they relate to virtual reality. He said if it can be proven that VR therapy helps those with chronic back pain, the next step would be to outfit physical therapy clinics with a low-scale version of the Motor Control Lab’s technology. As virtual reality becomes less expensive and more readily available, the final goal would be for people to use similar programs at home.

Megan Witmer, a junior studying journalism, said she would be willing to give the technology a try at home if she happened to need physical therapy for any kind of pain relief.

“I would at least try it and see what it would be like,” she said. “I’d want to, of course, know if it would actually help me and if it was successful. I just wouldn’t want to spend all that money to actually test it on myself. I’d want to read up on it and really understand what the benefits of it would be.”

Such a scenario is probably still a few years away but could come in the near future, Alexa Hoynacke, a research assistant at the lab, said.  

“People are able to access virtual reality a little more, but it’s still new,” Hoynacke said. “(Virtual reality is) definitely more in-lab therapy than something people can use at home right now, but it’s definitely advancing.”