VR physical rehabilitation

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VR physical rehabilitation

Children with limb motor impairment often undergo repetitive therapeutic physiotherapy sessions to minimize functional disabilities of the affected area

Still from the Impact VR physical rehabilitation exercise. It show a clearing a forest with a castle tower and smaller turret coming out the left side with it. It is dark and the way towards the castle is lit with orange torches.

Even though therapeutic processes can improve functional outcomes and minimize persistent disabilities, patients often neglect to participate fully in physical therapies due to the associated procedural pain.

Over recent decades, there has been a growing interest in designing non-pharmacological interventions which aim to minimize pain during physical therapies and improve functional outcomes.

Upper limb VR rehabilitation in the clinic

Via two interrelated studies, we explored the use of virtual reality (VR) as a tool to provide therapeutic physiotherapy for child patients in and out-patient hospital department.

We found that VR is an effective solution for children with upper limb motor impairment undergoing painful therapeutic process within a hospital environment.

VR can improve functional disabilities, alleviate perceived pain, reduce the perceived difficulty of rehabilitation exercises, increase exercise duration and produce positive emotions towards the therapy.

Implementation at home

Recent studies have suggested self-directed, home-based exercise programmes can deliver similar outcomes to conventional face-to-face therapy, which can be costly for both the patient and the healthcare system. However, even if therapies are suitable for home use, they are very likely to fail due to lack of patient motivation.

Our VR rehabilitation system has proven to be a fun, motivating and pain-free way to replicate rehabilitation therapy at home. It can offer greater accessibility, delivery and early rehabilitation to significantly optimise functional outcomes and quality of life.


In the clinic

"I felt zero pain! Because I was doing something at the same time, so I didn’t realise that I was doing them [referring to the rehabilitation exercises] [...] I want another go! [Laughter]." – Patient

"The best bit was the feeling of actually being there [...] It was more enjoyable because it felt like I had no injury, so it felt like I could just do it." – Patient

"She didn’t look as though she was in pain at all. She didn’t look as though she had any restrictions. It was just so fluent, she didn't have to think about what she was doing."– Family member

At home

"I’ll say the first operation, he’s not enjoying the physio. He sometimes even mentioned to me he didn't want it doing. But right now when he’s using the headset, when he’s back to school, every day he’s taking… 'Come mum, I’m ready for the video.'" – Family member

"It wasn't a chore. She has been doing physio in the past... it's been, like, do this exercise so many times a day for several minutes. And it is a chore. […] The fact it was a game and she found it engaging and enjoyed it meant she looked forward to doing it every day." – Family member

"If the patient isn't engaging well, they could take it home for a week or two, and that improves that movement at home, doing something that they want to do." – Occupational therapist


Confidence in Concept (CiC) (Medical Research Council) - August 2017 to February 2019.

Proof of Concept (Grow MedTech). September 2019 to August 2020.


Sheffield Teaching Hospitals National Health Service (NHS) Foundation Trust.

A still from the impact VR physical rehabilitation project showing the user looking up at the tower from the bottom of it. There are lanterns that lead the way up and a glowing green and purple hut at the top
Still from the Impact VR physical rehabilitation research. A ghostly hand represents the a user as it reaches for a brick to climb up the castle tower

More testimonials


"It was really fun! [...] Because you exercise but in a fun way, and like you can see loads of things around you. It’s definitely more different than the real world. And it’s kind of like fantasy, and I liked it so much."

"I would like to play this game again and if we could have this definitely in the future available, I think that would be really good for everybody."

Family members

"He was 100 percent more engaged than usual [...] I’ve never seen him do his movements so happily in many, many years."

"He didn’t want to do any exercises after the operation and now with the game, he just wants to do it."

"I think it’s much more engaging, and the effort they put into the movement is much greater than you expect from normal exercise. And certainly, enjoyment as well is, you can see that they’re benefiting from being fun."

"She didn’t need a prompting […].it wasn't, oh come on now, you need to do your exercises. She made time every day herself to do it […]"

"The range of movements seemed to be a lot more fluent. It was a natural reaction to just do that and the movement was just better than it would be if you [child] hadn't had it on. It was distracting your mind at the same time. So, it was really good. You forget that you've got these problems,[ …]. Absolute brilliant."

"I think because it was more entertaining, she was doing the exercises without realising she was doing it. So I'm sure, it helped in terms of actually doing...repeating exercises without thinking about doing it."

ImpactVR forest scene

Funding partners

About this project

Explore the people, research centres and partner organisations behind this project.

Contact us

For more details about research opportunities, our impact and more

Email us


Phelan, I., Furness, P. J., Matsangidou, M., Carrion-Plaza, A., Dunn, H., Dimitri, P., & Lindley, S. A. (2021).Playing your pain away: designing a virtual reality physical therapy for children with upper limb motor impairment., Virtual Reality, 1-13. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10055-021-00522-5

Phelan, I., Furness, P. J., Dunn, H. D., Carrion-Plaza, A., Matsangidou, M., Dimitri, P., & Lindley, S. (2021). Immersive virtual reality in children with upper limb injuries: Findings from a feasibility study., Journal of Paediatric Rehabilitation Medicine, 401 – 414. DOI: 10.3233/PRM-190635

Research team

Ivan Phelan

Ivan Phelan

Impact VR director, Principal Research Fellow

Ivan Phelan's profile

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