For years, doctors have been treating pain with medications and therapy. However, these treatments are not always effective for everyone. This is why more people are turning to virtual reality as a way to manage their pain.
This article will discuss how Virtual Reality (VR) can help you manage your daily pain without the need for pills or sessions with a therapist!
Can Virtual Reality help relieve pain?
Virtual reality definition is the use of a computer-generated environment that can be explored and interacted with.
In a study published in 2019 in PLOS, Pr Spiegel, director of Cedars-Sinai’s Health Service Research, analyzed the responses of 120 patients (61 in the VR group, 59 in the Control one) when exploring 21 different VR environments. The control group watched the “Health and Wellness” Channel on a standard television.
The results in grading the perceived pain were significantly in favor of the use of Virtual Reality, especially for patients experiencing severe pain. In addition, VR was an effective adjunctive therapy to complement traditional pain management protocols in hospitalized patients.
In another study using VR for chronic lower-limb pain found that patients had significantly decreased intensity and unpleasantness of their pain after a 20-minute session in an immersive virtual environment.
VR therapy can be a great alternative for people who cannot take medication or have medical conditions that make it unsafe for them to use VR therapies.
Somehow, despite being proven effective for acute pain, Pr Poronnik from the University of Sydney published a study showing that its long-term benefits on chronic pain management still needed to be investigated.
How does VR help in reducing pain?
A painful feeling will travel from its source up to the brain via the spinal cord. In 1965, Melzack and Wall, two neuroscientists, suggested that while transiting in the dorsal horn of the spinal cord, the pain signal will encounter cellular “gates” that will allow noxious signals to be addressed by the brain.
The Gate Control Theory argued that pain level would be directly related to the level of attention directed towards pain. Hence, the theory is that the person’s mind has an easier time processing something virtual than focusing on their pain in real life. Thus, VR acts as an active distraction, not unlike reading a book or watching TV.
Neuroscientists believe that the brain can only focus on a limited number of inputs. Therefore, by diverting the brain to concentrate on another task, patients will pay less attention to pain and feel it less. This phenomenon is referred to as attention blindness. If you do not believe me, I suggest that you can a look at the clip below.
Finally, VR will modify the perception of time. Hence, shortening the time spent in pain. Furthermore, it is linked to how visual distraction will disrupt the prefrontal structures of the brain devoted to working memory.
What are the benefits of using virtual reality for pain management
According to Pr Spiegel, “VR…does more than just distract the mind from pain, but also helps to block pain signals from reaching the brain, offering a drug-free supplement to traditional pain management.”
Compared to pharmacological treatments, Virtual Reality presents several benefits. Among them, we can cite the fact that VR is cost-effective, comparatively easy to use, and non-invasive. In addition, managing pain using drugs will often lead to adverse side effects, which can be avoided when using VR.
Virtual reality therapy could provide relief without increasing medication doses for patients suffering from reduced drug tolerance or reliance on drugs for pain management.
For some patients, pain management does not work anymore. Tim Canty, MD, of the Comprehensive Spine & Pain Center of New York, uses an innovative combination of Ketamine and Virtual Reality experiences, which has proven effective.
If you are interested in the neuroscientific basis of how our brain process information and can easily be lured, we recommend that you check this book on Amazon (sponsored link) written by Pr. Adam Gazzaley from UCSF. Fascinating.
Companies currently dealing with Pain Management using VR
The company, founded in 2015 by Drove Stoudt and David Sackman, recently raised an additional $29 million Serie A investment and is at the forefront of VR chronic pain management. In the United States, one out of three Americans suffers from such conditions that cost a staggering $635 billion per year.
AppliedVR has already cleared all of the regulatory hurdles for SootheVR for anxiety and pain relief. A clinical study was conducted on 100 women undergoing hysterectomy. The benefits of the Virtual Environment were objectively assessed using the standardized Numeric Rating Scale (NRS) pain scale and Heart Rate as a physiological marker of pain.
With more than 30,000 in over 240 hospitals, AppliedVR’s new challenge is to complete a clinical study for EaseVRx to ease the use of opioids to treat chronic pain. In a first randomized study conducted on 30 participants, Pain intensity was reduced by 30%.
XRHealth aims at becoming the first virtual clinic where patients can receive treatments using a Virtual Reality Headset provided by licensed therapists.
The company offers virtual environments specifically designed to reduce pain in the neck, shoulder, lower back, and upper back pains.
What is the future of this technology?
Relieving chronic pain is challenging, and virtual reality can offer a therapeutic option for pain management that is drug-free and easy to use, non-invasive.
With Virtual Reality becoming more and more immersive and headsets more affordable, the future of VR in pain management appears as bright. However, numerous studies are still needed to evaluate the potential of such non-pharmacological therapies, especially for chronic pain management.
The use of opioids is raising concerns. However, we speculate that lower doses combined with specifically designed environments may be used for minor surgeries or chronic pain management.