- Therapy could help patients who find it too traumatic to look at own reflections
- Goggles encourage patients to carry out facial exercises while watching avatar
- Images played on screens immerse user into simulated three-dimensional world
Facial paralysis suffered by thousands of Britons is being treated by pioneering NHS specialists with virtual-reality computer game-style technology. The therapy could be used to help patients who find it too traumatic to look at their own ‘changed’ reflections after the paralysis.
The virtual-reality (VR) goggles encourage sufferers to carry out the regular facial exercises needed to regain muscle function – with the wearer watching an avatar’s face doing the exercises rather than their own.
Face to face: Lacey May is happy with her VR treatment
VR goggles contain screens that sit next to the eyes. Images played on the screens immerse the user into a simulated three-dimensional world, which seems real.
Although most popularly used for computer games, one of the latest uses is in the treatment of facial paralysis, also known as facial palsy, when the muscles in the face weaken, mainly as a result of temporary or permanent damage to the facial nerves.
This leads to paralysis of the affected part of the face, which can affect movement of the eyes, mouth and other areas.
The cause can be viral – the most common being Bell’s Palsy – or bacterial infection, neurological disease, stroke or due to damage to the nerves after facial surgery. About 100,000 people in the UK are said to be affected in some way.
Facial palsy expert Charles Nduka, consultant plastic surgeon at the Queen Victoria Hospital, East Grinstead, is leading a trial into the new VR treatment which helps patients carry out facial physiotherapy at home. He said: ‘Almost one in three who develop facial palsy could be helped by exercise.’
According to Mr Nduka, daily physiotherapy is vital to ‘re-educate’ damaged nerve fibres. The main problem is that patients have to look in a mirror to see if they are doing their exercises correctly, and many find gazing at their reflections so distressing that they fail to do the movements regularly enough.
‘Visual feedback is vital to successful exercising. Now, facial sensors incorporated into virtual reality goggles offer these patients an avatar – a three-dimensional computer representation of themselves – to look at instead. This will feed back to them in the same way as a mirror.
‘Over the past ten years we’ve found that patients who perform exercises regularly have better outcomes,’ said Mr Nduka, who is developing the system with technology company Emteq, Facial Palsy UK and Nottingham Trent and Coventry universities.
The headset is fitted with ten electrodes that feed back how the muscles are moving in different parts of the patient’s face. As the patient frowns, smiles, and makes other expressions, the avatar’s face moves correspondingly.
Hoping to join the trial is Lacey May, a 29-year-old who lost feeling in the right side of her face during labour seven years ago with daughter Anolah. She said: ‘I was eating an ice cream and it suddenly started going up my cheek instead of into my mouth. While having contractions, I was being checked for a stroke and having eye tests – it was terrifying.
‘After I gave birth, they diagnosed Bell’s Palsy and gave me steroids, but no information about rehab. I felt unable to face being photographed and have no pictures of me with my baby.’
The therapy could be used to help patients who find it too traumatic to look at their own ‘changed’ reflections after the paralysis. Pictured: The avatar's smile
Lacey had to tape her right eye shut at night, as she was unable to close it, and eat and drink through a straw as her mouth was affected.
Out of the blue, she found some relief after she was spotted by a therapist from Queen Victoria Hospital in a car park. Lacey said: ‘She asked if I had Bell’s Palsy and suggested I ask for a referral to the clinic where she worked.’
Six years on, exercises have helped, but she says: ‘I don’t do them often enough because I can’t bear to look in the mirror.’
Having been asked to evaluate the goggles, Lacey says: ‘Working with them was unbelievable, because the avatar reflected my muscles working so I could see how to balance them out. Now I am applying for the trial because my dream is to get back my smile.’
The four-month, 40-patient trial will start next year. For more information, click here.