Virtual Reality and Pain Research

Technology has long been a critical partner for medicine, and this relationship is just as important in pain medicine as any other medical field. One of the most exciting new technologies to emerge in pain medicine is virtual reality which helps patients immerse themselves in a completely new setting free from pain.

New studies show that virtual reality treatments have authentic therapeutic value. One study published in Public Library of Science found that patients that used virtual reality experienced a significant reduction in pain scores compared to those who viewed similar scenarios only through a television.  This suggests that VR can be used as an effective substitute for higher risk therapies like opioid pain relievers.

In the future, patients suffering from many kinds of chronic or acute pain could find themselves with VR equipment on rather than under the influence of powerful chemicals. Emerging research promises that virtual reality has similar palliative potency to opioid pain killers.

The Nature of Pain

It is normal to believe that pain is an objective phenomenon, but the reality is much more complicated. Acute pain like stubbing a toe may appear to produce a similar amount of discomfort among all people, but that is not actually the case. Pain is much more subjective and influenced by a host of factors.

For example, if you are on the way to an important destination and bump into a door, you may not experience as much pain as if you had the same encounter on a leisurely stroll.  That is because pain is not merely a direct nerve impulse from your foot to your brain. There are multiple gateways and processing mechanisms that influence how you interpret pain.

It is also important to keep in mind that pain that recurs over a long period of time rewires the brain in some profound ways. Over this period of time, ongoing pain will make your brain more sensitive to pain because the specific regions involved in pain will become more pronounced. Moreover, related emotions like anxiety and depression, which are processed in the same areas, will reinforce this brain reorganization.

The Prevalence of Chronic Pain

A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that in 2016, the number of people in the U.S. suffering from chronic pain was about 20 percent, and almost 8 percent struggle with high-impact chronic pain that interferes with daily activities. The populations with the greatest risk of chronic pain includes

  • Women
  • Older adults
  • Unemployed
  • Impoverished
  • Adults on public health insurance
  • Rural residents

Chronic pain has been estimated to cost the United States almost $560 billion annually in lost wages, medical costs and disability costs.

The most common chronic pain conditions found in the United States include

  • Lower back pain
  • Headaches
  • Arthritis
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Nerve damage

Chronic pain has a devastating effect on the health and quality of life of patients. Chronic pain has been linked to loss of mobility, opioid addiction, depression and anxiety.  Worldwide, chronic pain is the leading cause of disability; more specifically, lower back pain is the cause of one-third of all workplace disability around the world.  

What Is Virtual Reality?

For many people, virtual reality or VR means futuristic technology largely relegated to the movies. The truth, however, is that virtual reality is a very real technology that is available right now. It typically involves some goggles and headphones that feed an image to the user and block out the current surroundings.  The purpose of this equipment is to totally immerse the user in a created environment.

In a medical setting, virtual reality might be used to imagine if the patient was an amputee but had all of her limbs again.  This has been used to help alleviate phantom pain or expedite recovery.  The benefits of virtual reality include the ability to create a custom environment specifically tailored to the patient’s needs.

VR allows patients to experience settings that might be out of reach for them. It is often realistic or functional enough to allow the patient to lose themselves in this new setting. In many ways, virtual reality is an evolution of mindful meditation in which meditators attempt to divorce themselves from their external environment.

How Virtual Reality Relieves Pain

One of the most important features of pain is that it can be cognitively mitigated. Many athletes may experience only minor discomfort from an injury on the field, but it may become quite disruptive once the contest is over. That is because your pain is gated, or, in other words, only so much sensory information may be processed at a time; if you are intent upon some other important task, your brain doesn’t allow you to accept pain sensations.

Virtual reality mitigates intense pain by encouraging patients to focus on other tasks.  A study in 2016 involving 120 chronic pain patients found that virtual reality could greatly reduce pain symptoms.  Half of the patients were given Oculus headsets and asked to engage in 21 immersive scenarios which included helicopter tours or guided relaxation by the ocean.  These sessions occurred three times a day and lasted ten minutes each. The other half of the population only watched guided relaxation on television.

After a 48-hour period, both populations were asked about their pain symptoms. Those only watching television experienced a 0.46 average point drop in pain scores, while those using VR headsets saw an average pain score decline of 1.72.

Although additional research is needed to understand how virtual reality has such a powerful effect on pain symptoms and how to optimize conditions for maximum pain relief, the available research suggests that there is immense potential for virtual reality in pain therapies. This is important for chronic pain patients who may be trying to transition off of opioid pain killers as well as people suffering from acute pain like women in childbirth or surgical patients.

Article written by: Dr. Robert Moghim – CEO/Founder Colorado Pain Care

M.D. Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the personal views of Robert Moghim, M.D. and do not necessarily represent and are not intended to represent the views of the company or its employees.  The information contained in this article does not constitute medical advice, nor does reading or accessing this information create a patient-provider relationship.  Comments that you post will be shared with all visitors to this page. The comment feature is not governed by HIPAA and you should not post any of your private health information.