Virtual reality can help people overcome real pain

Virtual reality seems to be able to shift the brain's experience in a way that helps patients handle pain.

Virtual reality seems to be able to shift the brain's experience in a way that helps patients handle pain.

Despite all efforts to combat the opioid epidemic, some relief may come from an unexpected source: virtual reality.

Anyone who thinks virtual reality is just a sideshow for gamers should pay close attention to the stunning results it's achieving in the medical world.

A virtual reality game called SnowWorld - in which patients throw snowballs at snowmen while virtually immersed in a white, snow-covered environment - has been used for more than 20 years to relieve the pain experienced by burn victims, and it's been surprisingly effective.

As David Rhew, the chief medical officer at Samsung Electronics America, recently explained, the promising results from burn management have led to broader use of virtual reality in an array of medical settings, including the type of chronic pain that leads to opioid abuse.

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In one trial in Los Angeles involving 100 patients experiencing significant chronic pain, half the patients played a 15-minute virtual reality game called Pain RelieVR, in which the patient tries to shoot balls at moving objects in an immersive 360-degree environment. The other half were shown an ordinary video of relaxing nature scenes.

Sixty-five percent of the virtual reality patients experienced pain relief, compared with 40 per cent in the control group, and the change among the game-players was more substantial.

Virtual reality seems to do more than a two-dimensional movie to shift the brain's experience in a way that helps patients handle pain.

To be sure, this study involved only a brief virtual reality experience, and it did not randomly assign the patients to each group.

But other studies of virtual reality in chronic pain management are showing similar results. The conclusion of a review done several years ago remains true today: "Virtual reality has consistently been demonstrated to decrease pain, anxiety, unpleasantness, time spent thinking about pain and perceived time spent in a medical procedure."

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Perhaps the most remarkable medical results from virtual reality involve spinal cord injuries.

In a small study of eight Brazilian patients who were paralysed below the waist, researchers used virtual reality, a robotic suit and tactile limb feedback to train the subjects' brains to develop alternative neural pathways to the affected limbs.

After a year, all of them experienced some improvement, and half were upgraded from full lower-body paralysis to partial. 

The use of virtual reality as a medical tool is in its infancy, and the results to date should be viewed as promising rather than definitive, especially given the exceedingly small sample sizes in studies so far.

 - The Washington Post

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