Data from 6 studies show that virtual reality (VR) is beneficial in the treatment of pain in adults and children. The immersive nature of VR may explain why the technique is effective.
Virtual reality is popping up virtually everywhere. New VR technology is rapidly emerging, and new uses for VR are appearing just as quickly.
Hunter Hoffman began studying virtual reality in 1993, just after he received a PhD in cognitive psychology from the University of Washington. Hoffman teamed with pain psychologist David Patterson. Together they created SnowWorld, a virtual replica of the Antarctic. SnowWorld enabled burn patients to live in a chilly alternate reality while their wounds were being cleaned.
Instead of reliving fiery trauma during the agonizing cleaning/re-bandaging process, the burn patients temporarily inhabited a cold blue-and-white world. They hurled snowballs at penguins. The patients reported their pain was reduced by half during their virtual experience.
SnowWorld was created during the dawn of virtual reality. Its helmet weighed 8 pounds. It was connected to a computer the size of a washing machine. The whole apparatus cost upward of $90,000.
In the years since SnowWorld, manufacturing advances have reduced the size, complexity, and cost of VR. Units are currently available for around $200.
Investigators at Princeton University and the Drexel University College of Medicine recently analyzed six studies performed between 2000 and 2016. Their report was published in the Journal of the American Academy of Pain Medicine. It concluded that the distraction provided by VR really does minimize a patient’s perception of acute pain.
In addition to distraction, virtual reality therapy creates neurophysiological changes. These changes may offer hope for reduction of chronic pain. The Princeton report’s lead author, Anita Gupta, stated that virtual reality can temporarily control a patient’s awareness of pain. But she emphasized that more large randomized studies are needed, especially on the issue of chronic pain.
A review published in Current Pain and Headache Reports concluded that, “VR trials demonstrate a potential to redefine the approach to treating acute and chronic pain in the clinical setting. Patient immersion in interactive virtual reality provides distraction from painful stimuli and can decrease an individual’s perception of the pain.”
The role of virtual reality pain management is being further defined in a new 16-month study at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. Funding and technological support for the project are provided by Samsung, Bayer, Travelers Insurance, and AppliedVR. The study will follow between 90 and 140 participants, who will receive a “digital pain-reduction kit” to support their virtual experience. The kits include a VR headset, a transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation device, and a wearable fitness tracker.
The researchers are led by Brennan Spiegel, Cedars-Sinai’s director of health services research. “We’re interested in understanding how we can use different technologies to improve the patient experience in ways that don’t require more drugs, and VR is one of them”, said Spiegel.
Dr. David Rhew, Samsung’s chief medical officer, said, “I think one of the most remarkable things about virtual reality is we have always thought of it as a great entertainment and distraction tool. We haven’t really thought of it as a therapeutic tool. And specifically being used to treat conditions such as pain, stress, anxiety, blindness, posttraumatic stress disorder, stroke, spinal cord injury. There is a lot of research now which is being brought to life.”
The willingness of technological and financial giants like Samsung and Travelers Insurance to invest in virtual-reality is very strong evidence that the future of virtual reality pain management is bright.
It’s universally known that even the most severe pain is set at a distance when the mind is totally focused on something other than that pain. And VR, with its enormously immersive qualities, is highly effective at moving patients’ attention away from their pain.
But VR’s usefulness in controlling chronic pain remains an open question. No matter how effective the distractive effects of VR may be in dealing with pain in the moment, pain patients must eventually emerge from their VR worlds. Real reality must still be faced.
Current studies indicate that pain levels are definitely reduced at the end of an immersive VR session, but the duration of that improvement remains vague. We’ll keep you posted on further developments in this very interesting topic.
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