Technology is helping in that regard with one innovation demonstrating great promise—virtual reality (VR). Originally developed for the world of gaming, VR has continually evolved through the years, with its applications branching out to a range of other industries, including professional sports. For example, VR is used in Formula 1 as a training tool to improve driver safety. This underscores VR's versatility, and is undeniable proof that it can be utilized not only in gaming, but in other fields as well.
One field benefiting from VR is healthcare. Other news and articles on MPO have noted the value VR offers—for example, its use as a teaching tool by GE Healthcare's VR-enabled training. It was just last year when GE Healthcare introduced an interactive, customizable training option enabled by VR for health technology management professionals who service CT and MR equipment. Now, VR has branched out again and is used to help chronic pain sufferers in alleviating their discomfort.
At the moment, US News reports that over 250 hospitals are using VR for pain management and there is mounting evidence that the solution is successful in this field. It should be clarified, however, that VR doesn’t eliminate pain per se; instead, the three-dimensional, multi-sensory environment in which patients are immersed provides enough of a distraction to redirect their focus from the pain to a more pleasant experience.
In a another news posting, Medical Product Outsourcing detailed a study on the use of VR for pain management. The study found that VR “significantly reduced patients' perception of acute pain, anxiety, and general distress” during blood drawing procedures. Dr. Jeffrey I. Gold, director of the Pediatric Pain Management Clinic at Children's Hospital Los Angeles and lead author of the study noted that VR could potentially “act as a preventative intervention transforming the blood draw experience into a less distressing and potentially pain-free medical procedure.”
Dr. Gold and Dr. Nicole E. Mahrer, part of the Department of Anesthesiology Critical Care Medicine and study co-author, theorized that VR helps control pain by engaging parts of the brain responsible for visual, auditory, and touch sensory experience, thereby producing “an analgesic effect.”
The following video offers insight from another case where VR is being used to address pain.
Those cases, though, involve acute pain, which is very different from chronic pain. Virtual reality pioneer Hunter Hoffman acknowledged the difference in a Wired article, noting that that “VR is perfect for acute pain.” He is convinced, however, that while chronic pain “is a different, more challenging problem,” VR can still be used as a pain management modality. The idea behind it remains the same: Distract patients from pain by immersing them in new worlds and enable them to “forget” about those persistent aches, by having them think about what they’re seeing and feeling in the VR-created world.
The challenge for VR companies like AppliedVR then is twofold—the first of which is to create “worlds” or experiences sufficiently stimulating for a pain-riddled patient to actually become distracted, and second is prescribing the correct experience to best facilitate treatment for the correct patient. It must be pointed out, however, that worlds that encourage positive thinking, in theory, are best for patients suffering from chronic pain. The reason, as Yale School of Medicine internist William Clark Becker explained, is because positive thinking can help lessen the pain signals making a beeline for the brain. “You can’t transplant people’s nerves,” Becker said. “You can’t undo the process, but you can dampen the heightened pain signals that are getting up to the brain.” To this end, even Qualcomm Technologies might create their own VR for pain control programs given how they have developed the cutting-edge VR application F.A.S.T, which helps educate people about strokes.
While VR is not a cure for pain, chronic or otherwise, it serves as an effective distraction from pain, helping patients forget it even for a few minutes or a few hours. But for people for whom pain is a part of life, even a momentary reprieve from their suffering is surely something they welcome.