How virtual reality therapy is being used for Pain Management
Pain comes in a variety of forms and intensities. Pain can be acute, such as the pain you feel when getting stitches or in the dentist chair, or it can be chronic where the pain is long lasting and persistent. Most often, pain is treated with drugs. However, virtual reality has opened new doors to ways we can treat pain whether it be acute or chronic. This page explains how virtual reality therapy for pain management is proving an effective tool available to therapists for helping patients suffering from pain.
What is Virtual Reality Therapy?
Virtual reality therapy (VRT) is the use of virtual reality (VR) technology in the treatment of pain management, as well as issues like anxiety and depression. By using VR, users are dropped into a virtual environment and fully engrossed in the experience.
Most VR experiences involved a head-mounted display, headphones for sound or music, often with noise-cancelling properties, a rumble pad, and joystick or other navigational tool to move through the virtual landscape. Head-tracking systems help to surround the user in the virtual world and make the experience truly immersive.
By including stimuli that engage the visual, auditory, tactile, and olfactory systems, VR is distinctly different from watching movies or TV, or even playing 2D games whether handheld or on a console.
While it was originally developed for entertainment, new applications for virtual reality are being discovered all the time.
Virtual reality therapy for acute pain management
The main use of virtual reality therapy for pain management with acute pain is as a distraction tool. When focused on the virtual reality environment, the patient experiences less pain because their attention is focused on the virtual world.
An example of this is the VR game SnowWorld, which was created to help burn victims. In the game you are surrounded by a snowy landscape where you throw snowballs at snowmen and navigate icy ravines. SnowWorld includes music to immerse the player even deeper in the world.
SnowWorld – a VR experience created to help burn victims
In a study published by Royal Society Open Science, researchers were curious to find out which aspects of VR were most important when helping to deal with pain. The study involved 27 healthy volunteers who held their hands in icy water at 1 degree Celsius for as long as they could while playing a VR game. The VR tools involved a head-mounted display and noise-cancelling headphones.
There were four situations in the study: one in which there was neither an audio or visual display, one in which there was only audio, one where there was only visual inputs, and one where there were both audio and visual inputs.
The researchers found that participants were able to hold their hand in the cold water for the longest periods of time where they were playing the game with both audio and visual inputs. The researchers also found that tolerance levels were higher for both only audio and only visual when compared to the control situation where the participant had neither.
While this trial was relatively small and used healthy participants, it does show that there is evidence that VR is helpful for pain management.
Virtual reality therapy for pain management during medical procedures
No one is sure exactly how VR works to inhibit pain while undergoing medical procedures. Dr. Sam Sharar works as an anaesthesiologist at the University of Washington notes that when immersed in a VR world a patient is distracted from painful stimuli.
His team tested to find if using VR caused a release of endorphins that would help to dull feelings of pain. They used a drug called naloxone, a narcotic inhibitor that would prevent the endorphins from blocking pain while using VR. However, even when using naloxone, VR still helped to reduce pain.
Using VR for chronic pain
Having chronic pain is a terrible, and often all consuming experience. Those that suffer from it can be in constant pain for months, or even years and it is accompanied by frustration, fear, and seclusion. Those who had once led happy, normal, and productive lives can find themselves unable to get out of bed.
Estimates for the financial costs in the USA due to chronic pain range from $560 to $635 billion, higher than that due to heart disease, cancer, or diabetes. It is estimated that 100 million Americans are living with chronic pain.
Most often the ineffective answer to this pain is an opioid prescription with which a patient can still experience breakthrough pain. Using virtual reality therapy for pain management of chronic pain may not seem intuitive, but there is research being done in this area.
An anaesthesiologist at Stanford, Dr. Sean Mackey along with Dr. Christopher deCharms have run experiments to determine the perception of chronic pain. They have investigated how the brain processes chronic pain instead of looking at how nerves sense pain to understand it as a cognitive process that can be changed.
While Mackey and deCharms use fMRIs to show their patients digital representations of their pain, Dr. Diane Gromala, who also suffers from chronic pain, has applied this thinking to VR technology.
Gromala and her team at the Chronic Pain Research Institute work both on using VR for distraction to help with acute pain, and create worlds to use the brain’s power of neuroplasticity to re-wire the cognitive processes involved in chronic pain.
By using biofeedback and immersive VR worlds, patients are able to focus on their pain, create thoughts on it, and thus start to cope with it.
Virtual Meditation Walk – helps patients exercise mindfulness
The Virtual Meditative Walk measure things like heart rate, temperature, and respiration to help patients exercise Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. Being able to see feedback instantaneously and helps visualize how much attention their pain uses.
While Gromala says that VR isn’t necessary for mindfulness, she says that those who use it feel more confident that they can control their pain, and that it becomes less of a mystery.
The world of virtual reality has only just begun to be pervasive in our society. While once seen as merely a tool for entertainment, clinical applications are a promising new way to help people cope with pain either physical or mental.
Please visit our Find A Therapist page for information on treatment centres offering VRT for pain management.