New technology is emerging in the medical world surrounding virtual reality, and many clinicians have been asking the question: can virtual reality relieve pain? Virtual reality therapy (VRT) utilizes specially programmed digital environments, providing visual immersion through headset devices and headphones. Artificially crafted environments can give patients simulated experiences which can be used to treat chronic pain symptoms.
In VR-based therapies, the virtual world is a means of providing artificial, controlled stimuli in the context of treatment, while physician’s monitor the patient’s reactions. Originally, VR technology was solely recognized for its entertainment value; however, in the past 10 years, its application has been expanded to a variety of clinical areas, including pain management, physical rehabilitation and the treatment of psychiatric disorders
Medical Virtual Reality Therapy
According to a study by the US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health (NIH), clinical and experimental settings have shown that virtual reality therapies have proven to be an effective method to treat chronic pain and suffering. Patient outcomes were improved due to exposure to virtual reality programs that emphasized pain management environments, with distinct levels of pain reduction show by brain scan.
“In clinical settings and experimental studies, participants immersed in a Virtual Reality experience reduced levels of pain, general distress and unpleasantness and report a desire to use VR again during painful medical procedures.”
-National Institutes of Health Study on Virtual Reality Therapy
The Future of Pain Relief
Growing evidence has begun to emerge supporting Virtual Reality Therapy’s (VRT) effectiveness as a treatment for managing chronic pain. The use of virtual reality therapy for treating patients with chronic pain and long-term pain rehabilitation is continually being researched and applied in medical practices all over the country. To date, only a few studies have specifically investigated VRT for chronic pain management and the data is preliminary but shows promise.
Virtual Reality Therapy and Multi-sensory pain management
Pain management research surrounding Virtual Reality Therapy entails addressing the multi-sensory nature of how chronic pain affects the body. Researchers and medical practitioners applying Virtual Reality Therapy to patient treatment regimens address chronic pain management on a multi-sensory basis, addressing not only the location of the pain but using Virtual Reality Therapy to neurologically affect a lessening of pain symptoms.
“Virtual reality (VR) is a state-of-the-art technologically advanced system that allows users to be transported into a ‘virtual world.’ Users are engaged in a fully immersive VR experience through a combination of technologies, including a head-mounted display (HMD), headphones with sound/music and noise reduction, a rumble pad, joystick or another device for manipulation/navigation of the virtual environment (VE). Virtual Reality also includes head-tracking systems, which are often built into the HMD. These systems follow the user’s head movements, giving them the illusion of being completely surrounded by a virtual world. Advances in computer graphics, especially within the gaming world, have meant that some traditionally expensive technologies are becoming more accessible.”
-National Institute of Health on Virtual Reality Therapy for Pain Management
Want to learn more about Virtual Reality Therapy? Check out the USC Institute for Creative Technologies case study about VR therapy and its effects upon pain management.
Virtual reality has consistently been demonstrated to decrease pain, anxiety, unpleasantness, time spent thinking about pain and perceived time spent in a medical procedure for patients that are suffering chronic pain. Healthcare providers are realizing that VRT increases patient health outcomes while decreasing anxiety and distress. Research is being conducted into the efficacy of VRT for pain management outcomes, as a viable treatment option for managing chronic pain or facilitating pain rehab. Most preliminary studies have shown VRT maintains efficacy over repeated sessions and provides faster pain rehabilitation for patients. As the field advances and technology progresses, VRT can reduce or eliminate the need for narcotics pain relievers. VRT is showing promise for managing chronic pain and will continue to change the face of chronic pain management for patients.