Instead of painkillers? VR technologies help even with severe pain. Immersion in virtual worlds, as the study shows, significantly alleviates patient discomfort – and works better than other distractions. Interestingly, the analgesic effect lasts up to 72 hours. Therefore, VR therapy could even be an alternative to using painkillers.
Virtual reality (VR) has long been a trend in the gaming industry. But it is becoming increasingly apparent that this technology has potential for medicine as well. For example, immersing yourself in real, computer-generated worlds can help people overcome anxiety and trauma. Even pain patients seem to benefit from virtual therapy, as initial studies show. Researchers suggest that experiences from another reality distract the affected so much that they notice their pain less.
However, how well this works in patients with very severe pain was unclear. "Nearly half of all patients in the hospital are in pain, a quarter of them are perceived as 'unbearable'," commented Los Angeles-based Brennan Spiegel Cedars-Sinai Health Systems and colleagues. Often, just strong painkillers like opioids help – but these drugs can depend and their effects weaken after a long time.
Distraction through VR glasses
"Therefore, there is an urgent need for non-pharmacological treatment methods," the doctors emphasize. Is virtual reality a possible alternative to drug-based pain therapy? To find out, scientists have now tested on 120 patients at Cedars-Sinai Hospital. The study participants had different underlying diseases, but all suffered from pain, whose strength was rated on a scale of one to ten with more than three.
For the study, 61 subjects were given a pair of VR goggles to give them different experiences – from relaxation exercises in nature, to simulated flight, to animated games. They were instructed to dive three times ten minutes each in the VR world over the next 48 hours. Alternatively, the other 59 participants were asked to include a health and wellness TV channel, which included relaxation and poetry reading classes.
The pain is dying
The results revealed: "The effect of VR therapy clearly outweighed the effect of the control intervention," Spiegel reports. On average, the observed pain in the control group decreased by only 0.46 points, in the VR group by 1.72. Among patients with very severe pain, the superiority of virtual therapy was even more pronounced.
Those who previously reported pain severity of over seven experienced an average improvement of 3.04 points with VR treatment. In contrast, television provided only a 0.93 relief in this case. It is also interesting: the positive effect of VR was not only measurable immediately after the intervention phase. He also showed up 48 to 72 hours later, according to Spiegel and his team.
A substitute for opioids?
According to the researchers, this suggests that virtual reality can deter patients with pain more successfully than other measures and is especially effective in the event of severe discomfort. Still, many things are still not clear: What types of virtual reality are the best ways to reduce pain? Are there any specific patients who respond specifically to this form of treatment? Can VR therapies actually reduce the need for opioids?
"The field of therapeutic VR continues to grow and evolve. Our research confirms the benefits of this technology for managing pain in hospital patients. But there are still open questions that need to be explored in more detail in the future," the team concluded. (PLOS One, 2019; doi: 10.1371 / journal.pone.0219115)