Virtual Reality Used to Alleviate Pain and Anxiety

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While debate rages on in the video gaming community to decide whether virtual reality is a novelty or the next step in the evolution of the industry, a different approach to VR has quietly been growing since the 1990s. Researchers believe that virtual reality is the next step in reducing medical patients’ pain and anxiety.

For some patients, there is little recourse beyond painkillers to endure the procedures essential to their recovery. Alternatives to medication may seem like a fantasy, which is perhaps appropriate. The immersive worlds created by virtual reality can distract the brain from pain in ways comparable to traditional medications. Medical professionals from many areas are experimenting with this technology to reduce reliance on potentially addictive perscriptions.


Pediatric Experiments with Virtual Reality

The prospect of visiting a doctor is daunting for a child. What if, instead of being asked what he or she is enjoying in school, the child could be transported to a magical world with powers of distraction beyond even the most charismatic doctors?

Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford is leading the way in virtual reality therapy for children, extending the distraction-oriented technology to all patients.

Dr. Sam Rodriguez reports that the virtual reality headset was able to distract children who had been crying to the point where they began to describe enjoyment in the scenes and games they experienced instead. Rodriguez sees it as an excellent way to treat children who naturally have a low tolerance for pain and anxiety.

The Childhood Anxiety Reduction through Innovation and Technology program, or Chariot, has been developed especially to help children cope with fearful or confusing trips to the hospital. The Chariot program uses the allure of a fictional world or simple, open-ended game to keep children’s minds off the harsh reality of their hospital visits. The size of the virtual reality units has been adjusted to better fit children and equipped with external volume control, allowing caregivers to communicate with patients more easily.

Virtual reality gaming as a whole is full of titles that are not exactly suitable to a hospital environment. Chariot carefully tailors their games and experiences to avoid frustration, in-game deaths, or game over screens. Their first game allows users to zap “spaceburgers” in an endless mode that gives children a whimsical distraction without complex input or worry that the game might suddenly end during treatment.


Virtual Treatment for Real Pain

Virtual reality treatment is not only for the young. Dr. Brennan Spiegel, the director of Cedars-Sinai Health Services Research, strongly believes that it can be helpful to teenagers and adults as well. With an expanded virtual repertoire, Spiegel has found success with distracting a variety of patients from their pain.


“When people use it, for the most part, it reduces their pain quite considerably, so within the course of five minutes the pain will drop from about five-and-a-half points to four points on a ten-point scale,” explained Spiegel to CGTN America. “That’s pretty dramatic for not using any narcotics, no medications, no medical intervention, just the experience of being transported away from where you physically are.”

Spiegel’s work with Cedar-Sinai aims to create virtual reality options that can be implemented more widely, to reach as many patients as possible.

Other researchers have demonstrated virtual reality’s applications extend beyond the hospital. A study on the use of virtual reality in dentistry discovered that moderate to mild fear and anxiety in dental patients can also be treated using VR. The study found a decrease in anxiety by both subjective and objective standards.

Virtual reality can not only treat pain, but may also be able to train the brain to relearn functions once thought lost. Dr. Miguel Nicolelis, director of the Duke University Center for Neuroengineering, reports that eight paralyzed individuals responded positively to virtual reality treatment. After one year, half of the patients were reclassified as partial paraplegic due to increased voluntary movement.


Looking to the Future

inside vr googles

Image source: TV Rev

While treatments for stress and pain related to minor procedures continue to gain traction, other researchers also have hope to treat more enduring pain with virtual reality.

Although research is still in its early stages, one study suggests that sufferers of chronic pain can benefit from virtual reality treatment. Further research investigating possible side effects and ideal treatment may bring a new option to sufferers of chronic pain.

But pain is not exclusively physical. The University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technology has a project in development that aims to adapt virtual reality to treat PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). While many medical applications of virtual reality use it as an escape, in the case of PTSD victims, it becomes a means of experiencing the source of their trauma. This is a form of exposure therapy, described by USC Institute for Creative Technology as “endorsed as an ‘evidence-based’ treatment for PTS.”

A patient experiencing PTSD might relive the original trauma in dreams night after night. Thanks to virtual reality, even a crude representation can bring the patient into a safe environment in which to explore his or her trauma, and in time overcome it. One patient, Marine Jimmy Castellanos, found virtual reality critical to his recovery. After a difficult beginning, his virtual trips to Iraq, where he had seen his roommate die, allowed him to move forward with his life.

“In 13 weeks I’d completely changed who I had been for the previous ten years.” Castellanos claims. “Before the treatment, 80-90 percent of my dreams were Iraq related. Now I can’t remember the last time I had one. I live in a completely different way now.”

With further research and experimentation, virtual reality could become a common method of treatment for PTSD victims.

As software development and medical experimentation continues, it may be possible to extend some of these benefits to the everyday user of virtual reality. The Oculus Rift and VIVE virtual reality systems are primarily marketed for use as gaming devices, but like personal computers, their possible applications may extend far beyond the originally intended purpose.

The types of distractions provided in a medical environment could be expanded to drive away stress and anxiety in every day. As market demand for virtual reality expands, companies may develop programs the adventurous gamer could use to destress from the ups and downs of life.

As technology advances, virtual reality will take a growing role in how we manage the human mind. It is becoming a valuable tool in diversifying treatment possibilities for pain, anxiety, and more. While traditional methods to manage pain are here to stay, virtual reality is becoming a viable addition to medical science’s treatment arsenal.


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