How does virtual reality for pain management work?
Virtual reality is an immersive technology that allows you to experience different surroundings without having to leave your home. The technology offers a 360-degree view of a virtual environment enhanced with specific sounds. For instance, you can see a blue sky, rolling streams, grassy fields, and hear birds singing. Or you can swim with dolphins, watch Cirque du Soleil, and travel to exotic destinations. The environment can be either computer-generated or use recorded videos of natural scenes.
VR has very exciting applications in the gaming sector, such as imitation of amusement parks, but the technology is not limited to this. In healthcare, VR is supposed to calm patients down, instead of exciting them, like in the previous example. In the medical sector, virtual reality can help combat phobias, ease anxieties, and decrease pain.
Combining virtual reality and pain management relies on the following techniques:
Meditation and breathing exercises
Cognitive behavioral therapy when the narrator instructs patients to focus on positive thoughts
Influencing patients’ mood and attempting to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression associated with pain
Distracting the brain from pain using external stimulations, as with fewer mental resources available to perceive pain, people will experience lighter feelings.
As Eran Orr, the CEO of XRHealth, said: “The brain is a very powerful tool and if we can convince your brain to think about other stuff when you are in pain, it helps you cope.”
And does it actually work?
Applying virtual reality for pain management is still advancing, and the scientists are still debating if the technology can provide a sustained pain reduction in the case of long-lasting chronic pain, or if it’s limited to offering a distraction in acute pain situations. However, there are multiple studies demonstrating that VR can actually make a difference, and healthcare players are getting convinced. For instance, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved using RelieVRx (former EaseVRx) for lower back pain management after it was tested on 179 people and 46% of the participants stated that it decreased pain intensity by over a half.
Also, what VR can offer aligns with the different theories that researchers put forward on pain perception and management. For instance, scientists believe that pain is composed of several factors, including emotions, attentiveness to pain, and past experiences people had with it. Here is what Dr. Gene Tekmyster, a rehabilitation doctor at Keck Medicine, described pain to Healthline:
“Pain is multifactorial. There is an incredibly large psychological component. There are so many things involved in people feeling pain and how much they feel pain.”
Virtual reality can actually address these factors, thereby reducing the perception of pain.
5 top applications of virtual reality for pain management
Researchers have been investigating how VR can ease the pain and comfort patients with different injuries and conditions. Here are the five main directions for VR deployment at hospitals and patients homes.
VR for burn pain therapy
Medical care associated with burn wounds treatment causes tremendous pain, and doctors are searching for ways to ease the level of anxiety and discomfort of their patients. One of the first studies of virtual reality’s impact on burn pain management dates back to the year 2000. A team of researchers investigated how the use of VR will affect burn treatment in 2 males of 16 and 17 years old. The boys preferred VR over video games and reported that the technology decreased pain levels and the time spent dwelling on it.
Twenty years later, in a recent study, researchers applied virtual reality for pain management to rehabilitating hand thermal injuries. Scientists randomly divided 57 patients suffering from hand burns into two groups. One was treated with conventional methods and the other used a VR-enabled RAPAEL Smart Glove system. Through software and sensors, the VR tool visualized hand movements on the screen. When patients were asked to do certain movements, they saw what they could do with each movement in real life. After four weeks of treatment, patients in the VR group reported higher satisfaction, lower pain, and better hand functioning.
In another effort, researchers deployed VR to ease the pain of cleaning large severe burn wounds in children. Many of these patients had facial burns, making it impossible to wear regular VR headsets. So, researchers relied on a robotic arm that held specialized VR goggles close to a patient’s face without getting in contact with the skin. Yet again, children who were exposed to VR experienced significantly less intense pain. And the “lowest pain during wound care” parameter was lower for these patients as well.
VR for cancer patients
Doctors investigated the potential of using virtual reality for pain management during cancer-related procedures, such as lumbar puncture and chemotherapy.
In a recent study, researchers examined the impact of using VR on the quality of life in patients with metastatic breast cancer. The ladies were asked to use the technology for a week and report their symptoms before and after each session, as well as after 48 hours since the last intervention. When the study concluded, all 38 participants reported feeling relaxed and even experiencing joy after the VR sessions.
In another instance, a team of researchers investigated whether VR for pain management can help patients cope with cancer. They worked with people who were either undergoing cancer treatment at that time or finished it recently. Researchers organized workshops where they supplied patients with headsets that can be controlled via a smartphone. The participants could select one of the three available settings — the beach, forest, or mountain. After several sessions, the patients reported improvement in their well being, mood, and stress levels.
VR during labor
Child birth is another excruciatingly painful experience that could benefit from VR, and researchers are testing that route.
Cedars-Sinai hospital experimented with using VR headsets for 40 first-time mothers who decided to abstain from pain medication during labor. Through the headset, patients watched different types of content created in a collaboration with a childbirth professional who gives the women breathing instructions and offers other types of guidance. All the participants cited decrease in pain.
In another instance, a team of Turkish researchers confirmed that virtual reality is successful in labor pain management. They instructed each participant in early labor stages on how to use the headset and gave them an option to choose their favorite nature scene that they continued to view while going into advanced labor stages. Yet again, the participants experienced a higher level of satisfaction and lower pain while using the technology.
Virtual reality for chronic pain relief
According to a recent survey, 50.2 million adults in the US suffer from chronic pain. Among those, 24.4 million experience debilitating pain, which limits their ability to perform day-to-day activities. To remedy this situation, researchers are looking into the potential of using VR for pain relief.
AppliedVR, a VR company based in Los Angeles, wants to use the technology to help people cope with chronic pain at home even after removing the VR headsets. This is reflected in what AppliedVR co-founder, Josh Sackman, said in his interview with Fierce Health: “The goal to teach them skills so that when they take the headset off, they are more prepared to live a life that may have pain in it.”
The firm conducted a study involving 74 people with chronic lower-back pain. Researchers instructed the patients on how to use the headset and taught them some self-management skills that they can deploy even after removing the headsets. After 21 days, the participants reported a decline in pain interference with their daily activities.
The FDA keeps approving virtual reality-powered devices for chronic pain management. Just recently, it gave the green light to the EaseVRx headset that uses cognitive behavioral therapy to ease chronic pain in adult patients. Here is how Beth Darnall, the Chief Science Advisor of the EaseVRx, described their technique in her interview for Healthline:
“Individuals turn on the headset and they’re in an immersive 3D world where they can see a new environment around them and be directed to interact within the context of that environment to learn various information such as the role of pain in the brain, how pain exists in the central nervous system, and what can be done to soothe or calm one’s nervous system within the context of pain.”
The company conducted an experiment where 46% of the participants experienced over 50% pain reduction after using EaseVRx.
VR for pediatric patients
Researchers also experiment with virtual reality headsets for pain management in children.
A team of scientists at Sheffield Hallam University, UK, studied how VR can help children who suffered upper limb injuries, such as fractures, that limit their range of motion. Researchers recruited patients aged 7-16 from the Children’s Hospital Trust in UK and equipped them with a VR headset and touch controllers. The headset offered two gaming environments that allowed kids to practice arm movement for their rehabilitation. The climbing game let participants grab rocks and climb, while kids who choose the archery settings would do the movements for arrow shooting.
The participants found these sessions more enjoyable than their regular arm movement exercises. These games gave the children the distraction they needed to cope with rehabilitation pain.
In another example, a team of Belgian researchers deployed virtual reality to decrease stress and anxiety that kids experience in hospital settings. This experiment involved 55 patients aged 4-16 years. The participants used the virtual reality and pain management app called Relaxation-VR with Oculus Go VR headset. Different environments accessible through the app prompted users to perform meditation and breathing exercises to help them relax during procedures or simply enhance their hospitalization time. The children said they had less stress and less pain and generally felt happier while using the VR system.
Virtual reality for pain management analysis and future trends
It seems from the cited research efforts that VR can actually ease both acute and chronic pain, as well as reduce the levels of anxiety and depression. However, the technology presents the following challenges:
Most of these devices are rather expensive, aren’t covered by insurance, and, most likely, won’t be until VR becomes a mainstream technology.
There are high structural and integration costs, and any medical practice that wants to employ the technology will need to smoothly integrate VR into its daily workflows and processes.
Researchers observe side effects in some patients. The most common one is cybersickness, when patients feel nauseated while wearing a headset. Other undesirable experiences are headaches and blurred vision. These symptoms tend to subside after repetitive use of VR for pain management.
Another important concern is that if patients get too accustomed to virtual reality through repeated exposure, the technology will lose its benefits.
With the help of healthcare software development agencies, researchers will keep experimenting with the technology to find more convenient methods of deployment. And as VR becomes a common practice, some of the issues presented above, like the insurance, will be resolved.
In addition to using this technology solo, doctors experiment with combining VR with other substances. For instance, doctor Tim Canty of the Comprehensive Spine and Pain Center of New York uses VR together with ketamine to help relief pain in patients with depression.
In another experiment, researchers studied how VR can supplement hypnosis in pain management. The team exposed patients to hypnotic induction and then “transported” them into a virtual reality.
To sum up
The healthcare sector is successfully experimenting with deploying virtual reality for pain management. The technology proved it can help patients get through injury rehabilitation and enhance their quality of life when suffering chronic conditions.
As with most technologies, there is no one size fits all. Doctors will need to find an optimum customized VR solution for each patient group. First of all, the headsets design has to be adjusted. For instance, the equipment needs to be small and light when used for dentistry-related purposes. And it can’t come in contact with patients’ skin in the case of thermal injuries.
Another important factor is that patients need to have a choice regarding the displayed content. Some people respond well to mindfulness exercises and looking at nature, while some prefer more intensive stimuli. Turn to VR and augmented reality app development services to design content that will suit your practice and your patient population.