A new healthcare technology slowly changing how physicians manage pain. To some, it may sound like fantasy, but virtual reality therapy (VR) is showing promise as a possible drug-free alternative for pain management. There are numerous medical conditions that would benefit from virtual reality’s ability to redirect a patient’s attention away from the pain.
For example, smaller 30-people studies by pain psychologists have been conducted in order to measure the impact of virtual reality on chronic pain. In the study, patients were asked about their pain levels during, and after, a five-minute VR session. Findings suggest that a patient’s pain was reduced by 60% during the five-minute VR session. After the VR therapy session, there was a 33% decrease in reported pain. These results imply that this type of drug-free treatment offers real benefits. Virtual reality therapy has been used by mental health providers to treat phobias, eating disorders and post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD).
The fear of opioid abuse has helped to promote VR treatments as a viable drug-free tool for successful pain management.
The use of VR in this manner is a recent healthcare trend. Traditionally this technology is seen as a source of entertainment and not healthcare tool. However, as a therapeutic tool, it is no used to treat pain, stress and anxiety. This raises the question as to whether people who are struggling with addiction could benefit from virtual reality therapy. The technology has the ability to trick a patient’s brain and place him or her in a series of immersive virtual situations that seem very real.
The benefits are promising enough that health systems and companies like Cedars-Sinai Medical Center (Los Angeles, CA), Samsung, Travelers Insurance, Bayer and AppliedVR are conducting a 16-month study to evaluate VR therapy for pain reduction as well as other therapeutic purposes. Cedars-Sinai’s Center will use VR technology as a supplement to manage pain in patients with acute orthopedic injuries of the lower back and extremities. The research is funded by Travelers Insurance and Samsung. The goal of the research is to create drug-free ways for the brain to stop processing pain, which would greatly assist the practice of traditional pain management.
However, many health systems lack the necessary equipment and training to properly implement virtual reality as a pain management treatment. Beyond the fact that VR is new medical technology, it is also still very expensive for a hospital to use for therapeutic purposes. But its ability to serve as a drug-free distraction during medical procedures is a valuable tool.
Elliot Krane, chief of pediatric pain management at Stanford Children’s Health, argues that VR’s power to distract is extremely valuable. For example, helping children pain-relief from their physical therapies is a helpful tool to possess. Dr. Krane feels that the biggest challenge right now is finding software developers to make VR applications that can target specific medical problems.
Skeptics may rightly ask why is there all of the new attention to VR as a medical tool. Hasn’t virtual reality technology already been in existence for a decade or more? It is true that VR technology has been around for decades in various forms, but medical virtual reality programs were mostly relegated to research facilities. However, the equipment was bulky, expensive and required a direct computer connection. Recent advances in computer technology are increasingly overcoming many of these earlier limitations and making VR therapy a real possibility for many healthcare facilities.
There are special considerations for any virtual reality content used in a medical pain management program.
Motion and speed within the program can cause nausea. When VR is used to treat pain, the content must provide a constant distraction from procedures or other physical sensations. That means it should flow continuously, without stops and starts that would allow the patient to refocus on their pain. Just as with equipment choice, proper VR content selection is also influenced by the age of the population using the technology. For example, a pediatric patient group would likely want different content choices than a geriatric group.
Studies of virtual reality therapy indicate that additional research is needed, but the results are promising. As artificial intelligence emerges and computer processing speeds increase, the realities that it can create will only become more convincing. Advances in computer technology, internet connectivity and bio-medical research will all likely push the envelope for VR development. These new capabilities will create a drive to use VR in new and interesting ways.
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Virtual Reality Therapy, VR, Pain Management, Drug-Free, Medical Technology