Virtual reality (VR) is quickly transforming the healthcare industry, changing the way patients and doctors receive and give care.
Some pregnant women are experimenting with VR headsets to ease the pains of childbirth. And in 2017, burn victims started using VR gaming to lessen the excruciating pain of having their bandages changed.
Now new research from Cedars-Sinai Medical Center supports the growing belief that therapeutic VR can safely and effectively reduce severe pain in hospitalized patients.
VR can significantly lessen people’s pain signals, especially in those who experience more severe pain, according to a new study published in the journal PLOS ONETrusted Source today.
As pain management is traditionally based on pharmaceutical medications — many of which are potentially addictive — these findings suggest VR may be a safe, effective, drug-free solution to treat certain types of pain.
“Most patients today are interested in reducing their need for pharmaceuticals, and VR appears to provide a pleasant, low-risk, easily tolerated, on-demand option for pain relief,” Dr. Beth Darnall, a pain management specialist at Stanford Health Care, told Healthline.
People with severe pain reaped the most benefits from VR
To measure how well therapeutic VR reduces pain, researchers studied 120 patients at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles between 2016 and 2017.
The participants had a range of medical conditions and experienced moderate to severe pain prior to using the VR headsets.
Sixty one people were given a VR headset — the Samsung Gear Oculus headset — with access to 21 different immersive experiences, such as a simulated helicopter tour over rugged Iceland or a guided relaxation while looking at soothing ocean or mountain scenery.
They then used the headsets during three 10-minute sessions a day over the course of 48 hours.
The other 59 people watched television featuring guided relaxation, like yoga and meditation, along with poetry readings.
Throughout the VR and TV sessions, the researchers looked at how the patients’ pain scores changed.
On a scale of 1 to 10 the self-reported pain scores dropped by 0.46 points in the group that watched the television programming and 1.72 points in the patients who used the VR headsets.
Most notably, patients with the most severe pain reported the greatest benefits from the VR headsets, with their pain score dropping roughly three points.
While a two or three-point drop may seem minor, they actually indicate quite a notable decrease in pain sensations.
VR can help distract people from their pain
Researchers haven’t pinned down why, exactly, VR mitigates people’s pain so well.
Many health experts suspect that VR distracts people away from the pain they’re experiencing.
“The most acceptable theory is the Gate theory of attention — it postulates that VR reduces the perception of pain by absorbing and diverting attention away from pain,” says Dr. Medhat Mikhael, a pain management specialist and medical director of the non-operative program at the Spine Health Center at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center.
When people are engaged in an immersive experience, they begin to tune out other stimuli, including their body’s pain signals.
In addition, many VR experiences include relaxation techniques, such as guided meditations, which are important skills to help manage acute and chronic pain, Darnall noted.
There’s still a lot to learn about the possibilities of VR
There are several more questions that need to be answered to better understand the full potential of VR in a clinical setting.
“We need additional studies to examine the effect of VR in a variety of surgery types, and its potential therapeutic value in improving function, surgical recovery, and reduction in long-term use of pain medication,” Darnall said.
Researchers also hope to explore whether different types of VR have various health effects and if certain personality types might respond better to VR solutions.
The biggest question, it appears, is whether or not VR can reduce pain while also reducing the amount of opioids people need.
If future research continues to prove that VR can help people better manage pain and other symptoms that traditionally require medication, the potential healthcare cost savings from VR therapeutics could be astronomical.
The bottom line
New research from the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center supports the growing belief that therapeutic VR can safely and effectively reduce severe pain in hospitalized patients. When patients with moderate to severe pain used VR headsets, they had a notable drop in their perceived pain.
While the exact reasons why VR headsets reduce pain signals is unknown, many experts believe VR distracts people from pain by immersing them in another experience.