It seems that virtual reality devices are finding their way into all kinds of scenarios these days. Maybe you’ve seen someone using one for gaming. Or, perhaps, you’ve tried one yourself on an indoor stationary bike – where this clever device can simulate a beautiful outdoor landscape.
Now virtual reality (VR) is finding its way into the healthcare industry where it’s being used to reduce severe pain.
When you consider that the number of prescriptions written annually for pain is roughly equal to the number of adults in this country, a harmless nondrug solution would be a godsend!1
So I’m happy to report that new research2 from Cedars-Sinai Medical Center offers some fascinating findings regarding VR therapy. Let’s take a look at this new high-tech wonder and see if it can help. . .
If you’re not familiar with the term virtual reality, it refers to a whole gamut of devices created to give the user an immersive experience by way of a computer-generated environment.
Imagine watching television and thinking you’re actually inside the story instead of merely looking at it, and you have some idea of VR. The user may even be able to move objects or otherwise change the environment.
There are a few different devices that can be used, but a headset – including goggles and headphones – is typically used. The whole device is sort of like a big football helmet.
More Than Just Entertainment
Advocates of VR say this method of therapy goes beyond distracting you from your pain. They believe it works because it totally immerses the patient in a relaxing, interactive environment that occupies the brain, so while it’s going on you have no mental room available to process pain sensations.
“It’s not just a distraction — it’s like an endogenous narcotic providing a physiological and chemical burst that causes you to feel good,” said Jeffrey I. Gold, director of the pediatric pain management clinic at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles in a New York Times interview.3 “It’s different from reading a book or playing with a toy. It’s a multisensory experience that engages a person’s attention on a much deeper level.”
To determine how effective therapeutic VR reduces pain, researchers studied 120 patients at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center between 2016 and 2017. These people suffered from a variety of different medical issues that caused them to experience moderate to severe pain before using the VR headsets.
One group of 61 people were given a VR headset with access to 21 different immersive experiences, including simulated helicopter tours or guided relaxation while gazing at serene ocean or mountain scenery. They used the devices during three ten-minute sessions that took place over a 24-hour period.
The other group of 59 people merely watched guided relaxation and poetry readings on a conventional television.
VR Beat TV
After observing both groups, researchers discovered some interesting results.
On a scale of 1 to 10, the self-reported pain scores dropped by 0.46 points in the group that watched TV and 1.72 points in the patients who used the VR headsets. The results were nearly four times better with VR. (To be honest, I wouldn’t expect guided imagery on regular TV to do much good at all.)
But here’s what I find fascinating: folks suffering from the most severe pain reported the greatest benefits from the VR headsets, with their pain score dropping about three points. Now, you may dismiss a two or three-point drop as minor, but it’s actually a big decrease in pain sensation.
Nor is it a fluke. Other studies find similar results.
A pilot study4 at the Harborview Burn Center in Seattle proved the value of VR with burn patients suffering from severe, acute pain. I don’t need to tell you that burns are just about the most painful injuries you can get.
And in one small study5 patients with neuropathic pain experienced a 69 percent reduction in pain during each session and 53 percent pain reduction immediately after each session. That’s huge, if you ask me!
The Future of VR
Whether it’s distraction or something else, I believe VR is worth a second look, especially for those with severe or chronic pain.
I don’t know of any harmless pain drugs, from NSAIDs to acetaminophen to opioids. They’re all damaging. It’s clear that we need alternatives. I don’t believe VR is the be-all, end-all pain relief savior, but it sounds like a useful tool.
David R. Patterson, a University of Washington researcher and expert in VR and hypnosis, told the New York Times3 that these techniques can “foster mindfulness, enhancing patients’ ability to come into the moment rather than pay attention to their pain. Pain may be inevitable, but suffering isn’t.”
I’m not sure when the new VR pain devices will become widely available. No doubt some government agency has to think about it for years.
So it may interest you to know we publish a brief book covering drug-free pain remedies you can use right now. It’s called The Ultimate Guide to Conquering Pain.
- Loguidice CT. Virtual reality for pain management: A weapon against the opioid epidemic? Clinical Pain Advisor, September 5, 2017
- Jones T, Skadberg R, Moore TM. A small preliminary study of the impact of repeated sessions of virtual reality on chronic neuropathic pain. Under review.