Virtual reality: A new pain reliever?


America is in the midst of an opioid epidemic. In 2014, deaths that could be attributed to opioid overdose reached record numbers, with the most commonly prescribed opioid pain relievers causing the majority of deaths.

For this reason, researchers and clinicians have been desperately trying to find alternate means of treating both acute and chronic pain.

A recent series of studies, however, has found what might be an unlikely solution: virtual reality.

Fighting pain with video games

Dr. Hunter Hoffman and Dr. David Patterson, two researchers at the University of Washington, have been studying virtual reality (VR), as a potential pain reliever for years.  Although it may sound farfetched, their research has provided extensive evidence that VR can indeed help curb the opioid epidemic.

In their earlier studies, the two researchers and their colleagues focused primarily on using VR to supplement the use of opioids in burn patients who were undergoing dressing changes. Dressing changes can be immensely painful, so much so that opioids are often insufficient. In these studies, individuals who were distracted by VR during these procedures reported less subjective pain and more enjoyment than individuals who did not receive VR therapy.

In 2011, the two researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, to look inside the brain when a person experiences pain with and without VR. Sure enough, they found that participants who received VR had less pain-related brain activity than participants who didn’t receive VR.

Finally, this past June, Hoffman and Patterson also looked at how VR influenced pain perception in healthy individuals. Much like the burn patients, healthy people who experienced pain found that pain less severe if they were immersed in VR while experiencing it.

“What we found was that VR reduces pain as much as a moderate dose of hydromorphone,” Hoffman explained.

The researchers cautioned that VR alone probably isn’t sufficient for pain relief, especially when the pain level is particularly high, and that combining it with a low dosage of opioids may be the best method. Nevertheless, supplementing opioids with VR rather than relying on opioids alone may mean that fewer people will need high dosages of opioids – and that fewer people will get hooked on them.

What does this mean for pain treatment?

What makes VR so effective? It’s possible that patients who are immersed in a virtual world are so distracted that they don’t notice the pain as much – after all, instead of staring at a wall in a doctor’s office during an uncomfortable procedure, they can instead solve a colorful puzzle or view an impressive alien world.

VR seems like it would effective for acute pain, but unfortunately not chronic pain. Individuals who live with pain day in and day out can’t afford to be constantly districted by virtual reality – they need to go to work, interact with their family and pursue hobbies. VR may be able to help patients with chronic pain when it comes to physical therapy, however, and other helpful (yet painful) exercises to improve their daily living.

In the end, more research is necessary before VR becomes a standard fixture in your doctor’s office. As the technology becomes more affordable – and therefore more available – more studies and clinical trials will be conducted to verify its therapeutic value.

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About the author

Courtney Lopresti, M.S., is a senior staff writer, she uses her scientific background to write online blogs and articles for a general audience. At the University of Pittsburgh, where she earned her master’s in neuroscience, she used functional neuroimaging to study how the human cerebellum contributes to language processing. In her spare time, she writes fiction, reads Oliver Sacks and spends time with her two cats and bird. Courtney is currently located in Minneapolis. 

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