Virtual Reality and Pain Management
What role do technologies like virtual reality play in patient care for issues such as pain management?
I hate going to the dentist. That insidious high-pitched squeal sends shivers up my spine. The cold water they spray in your mouth makes my teeth ache. For me, it’s a guaranteed hour of incredible discomfort, stress, and pain — that kind of high-pitched pain that only happens when someone inserts sharp objects under the tender tissue at your gum line.
My dentist lets me watch Netflix, to distract me from the experience. But I can still see the razor-sharp instruments approaching out of the corner of my eye. Plus I hear everything going on around me. Including that insidious high-pitched squeal.
The good news is that there is a better way! Enter virtual reality for pain management. It turns out it can help with fear and anxiety, too.
Researchers have actually been studying this and conducting legitimate case-control studies that are getting published in medical journals. We’re seeing all sorts of collaborations between health plans or hospitals plus VR headset makers plus insurance companies plus digital tech firms and even pharmaceutical giants.
One intriguing experiment was done at Cedar-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. It’s a major teaching hospital in a large urban area, so they get all sorts of patients coming through the door, from people having heart attacks to others limping in with broken bones. The idea was to compare how much pain in the hospital felt when they used immersive 3D VR goggles and headphones vs. watching 2D nature videos, which is one technique doctors use now to help calm and soothe patients and distract them from pain.
For anyone who has tried (and failed) to get kids away from a video game to come to dinner, it’s probably not a huge surprise that the patients in the VR group became fully immersed in the virtual world.
But the statistical results were really impressive: The VR folks experienced a roughly 25% drop in pain levels, plus twice the pain relief compared to the regular video watchers. Which is a big deal when you think about our current national crisis with opioid overuse and addiction.
Imagine if doctors could prescribe fantasy vs. fentanyl (meaning harmless VR sessions vs. dangerous, addictive drugs). The head researcher on this study, Brennan Spiegel, believes that this isn’t so far-fetched. He can picture a day when futuristic pharmacies might actually prescribe specialized VR to patients.
Why might this work? Spiegel says this: “The simplest theory is that it’s just distraction. It’s like shining a bright light right into the brain and almost overwhelming it with signals so it runs interference with the brain. Because the brain is so immersed in the experience, it’s unable to simultaneously process the pain signals coming from the body.”
The mechanism might be slightly different in helping people deal with anxiety vs. pain, but it seems to work, nonetheless. One study has focused on using VR to help veterans recover from PTSD by continually confronting the same event that traumatized them over and over again, this time from a safe vantage point in a virtual environment. With VR headsets, which they can borrow to do homework, patients can always just walk away if things get too intense. This allows PTSD survivors to focus on working through their trauma and anxiety in manageable baby steps.
The same applies to people with different kinds of fears and phobias. Right now therapists use exposure therapy to help people master phobias. Sufferers are exposed to the source of their fear, say spiders, in real life, over and over again. Eventually, over time, they get desensitized and lose their fear. With VR, therapists can expose people to a virtual fear-inducing environment, slowly increasing the spiders or darkness or height or whatever as the patient calms down (which is measured by tracking brain waves).
Imagine if you used these technologies but could then hook people up to a wearable device like an Apple watch or an iPhone to detect the brain waves, and enable patients to get real-time home-based biofeedback? It’s an intriguing idea and a real possibility given how accessible and affordable today’s digital tools have become.
This is the kind of innovation that is transforming patient care, improving outcomes, and reducing costs, while also generating troves of valuable data. That’s what our team at Valence is about, and it’s what we offer our healthcare clients, as well.
At Valence, we can add augmented reality or virtual reality experiences for our clients and let them collect and view real-time patient data at the same time. It’s exciting to imagine the possibilities. Interested in hearing more? Contact us, and we’ll start you off with a demo, to show how remarkable this technology can be!