30th November 2016

Is Cybersickness Limiting the Possibilities for Virtual Reality in Healthcare?

‘The world is in perpetual motion, and we must invent the things of tomorrow…Act with audacity.’ Madame Clicquot

If you are on a train or a bus, look up…Go on, look up…Is everyone on their phone? Do you assume other people think you’re odd if you’re not on your phone and just looking at people?

Well, I’m one of those - not because I’m never glued to my screen, but because I’m trying to stop the nausea I feel while on my phone. I suffer from cybersickness!

Cybersickness is the motion sickness or nausea you feel when you are gaming, in virtual reality (VR), or on your smartphone; it is due to the parallax effect, which occurs when the background is moving at a slower rate than the foreground. It is thought to be caused by a sensory conflict between our eyes, ears, and proprioception (our sense of body position and movement).

Cybersickness is also what could be stopping VR from reaching mainstream healthcare and from being included in patient care pathways (cost could be another factor!) as a large proportion of people are affected - albeit with mild effects that can subside quickly.

The focus of VR in healthcare is twofold: as a simulation tool for doctors and surgeons, and as an interaction tool for use in behavioural medicine for example. Both are gaining a lot of interest, with application possibilities expanding to diverse medical disciplines such as medical training and education, practice and modelling, patient education, psychiatry, and rehabilitation.1

VR has also been studied for use with cancer patients since 1999 and has shown great success when applied to therapies such as chemotherapy.2 Cancer diagnosis, treatment, and long-term management affect a person’s entire being by causing stress, financial strains, difficulty in maintaining interpersonal relationships, physical symptoms, and emotional distress. Implementing VR during the different phases of cancer treatment reduces bio-physiological parameters related to stress such as heart rate, respiration, muscle tension, and blood pressure, and reduces psychological variables such as anxiety, discomfort, pain, nausea, and vomiting.

However, as moderate to severe cybersickness is experienced predominantly in people who are fatigued, nauseated, or generally have ill-health, patient-focused VR might not be appropriate for all.

Now, what if a patient was on his smartphone in a virtual reality?


1. Srivastava K, et al. Ind Psychiatry J 2014; 23: 83-85.

2. Chirico A, et al. J Cell Physiol 2015; 231: 275-287.