Depending on where you live, COVID restrictions may still be in full effect. And while that’s cause for concern for anyone, it can be especially alarming if you’re living with chronic pain and need treatment. Whether your provider’s office has closed or you just don’t want to risk going out in public, it’s normal to feel alarmed.
Because this is such a widespread issue, more and more individuals and organizations are exploring the benefits of virtual reality (VR) as an at-home chronic pain treatment. By minimizing the direct care needed by a physician or other health care provider, VR could simplify the pain management process and keep immunocompromised individuals safely at home.
But just because the option is being explored does not guarantee that it works. What is the outlook of VR for chronic pain? Will this actually provide at-home pain relief?
I’m going to answer those questions and more, but first I’d like to start off with a primer on virtual reality and how it works.
What Is Virtual Reality?
If you spend a lot of time on the internet, you’ve probably come across pictures or videos of people using VR headsets. By totally blocking your vision, VR headsets can allow you to explore a new, virtual space from the comfort of your living room. This may also be amplified with special headphones that add a further level of immersion.
And when it comes to treating chronic pain with VR, immersion is everything. The more you feel like you’re in the virtual world, the easier it is to separate yourself from bodily pain. Think of it like distracting yourself, where your pain becomes less obtrusive because it isn’t on the forefront of your mind.
This works because pain is subjective. Of course wearing a VR headset won’t undo nerve damage or heal a physical wound. But like other forms of pain management such as medication or behavioral therapy, VR can ease your pain via a proven methodology.
To be clear, this isn’t science fiction; you’re not likely to become so immersed that you confuse a video game for reality. But by temporarily allowing yourself to enjoy the digital space, you can find very real pain relief.
In fact, one study conducted by researchers at the University of Washington used fMRI brain scans to track how much VR helped with chronic pain. And their results showed a significant drop in pain levels while people were using VR technology.
These results aren’t exclusive to individuals with chronic illnesses, either. VR treatments have proven effective in helping patients manage pain from injuries and even childbirth.
This proves that VR technology has the potential to help with chronic pain, but we still need more information. What kinds of VR treatments actually help? And how accessible is this level of care?
The Future of Virtual Reality for Pain Relief
The good news is that real people are using VR to treat their pain right now. One of the most prominent examples comes from a company called AppliedVR, which helps patients manage pain at over 200 hospitals.
In this groundbreaking move, AppliedVR now provides pain relief to patients who have been hospitalized or returned home following surgery. And as the company has seen promising results with this type of pain management, they have now partnered with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to provide virtual reality treatments at home. Additionally, the organization is conducting clinical trials to study the effects of replacing addictive prescription opioids with low-risk VR treatments.
Of course, there’s a natural skepticism when you talk about replacing medication with VR headsets and goggles. That’s why AppliedVR released a randomized study that analyzed data from 74 individuals with chronic pain ranging from lower back issues to fibromyalgia.
The study was conducted over 21 days, during which time half of the participants received VR headsets and used virtual programs that allowed them to play games, look at scenery, and even swim with dolphins.
The results showed that the participants who used VR experienced less pain overall. But even more importantly, their pain was less likely to interfere with their daily lives. This suggests that VR could be useful on bad pain days when it’s hard to accomplish daily tasks. Even more exciting, AppliedVR reports that this is the first study to demonstrate the utility of self-administered VR therapy, which is a promising sign for people looking for at-home pain relief.
However, it’s worth noting that AppliedVR creates and utilizes programs specifically developed to help with pain management. This means that it’s unlikely that playing normal, everyday video games will offer the same pain relief. Instead, people with chronic pain will want to stick with programs that center around evidence-based behavioral therapy.
Where once this care might have only been available in a hospital setting, individuals with chronic pain are increasingly seeing at-home treatment options. This has been especially true during the coronavirus pandemic, which has inspired many providers to consider new, at-home alternatives.
Virtual Reality as an At-Home Pain Treatment
As the coronavirus spurs on health care professionals to develop at-home treatments, we’re likely to see a sharp increase in the number of at-home VR therapies in the coming months and years. Unfortunately, for right now, this treatment option is still under review and is not widely available.
But that doesn’t mean that you should give up on this at-home pain management option. Just like how psilocybin can help with chronic pain or red light therapy may be able to reverse vision damage, this experimental treatment could represent the future of pain management. And staying informed on your treatment options will make it easier for you to find solutions by working with your health care provider(s).
What can you do for right now? Well, if you have a VR headset, there are plenty of games that center around relaxing subjects like fun puzzles or touring the world from your home. These games operate on similar principles as the programs administered by clinicians, but they’re more readily available.
However, you should note that these games have not been tested to determine if they help with pain management. For this reason, I would encourage anyone considering them as an at-home treatment to discuss them with a licensed health care professional first. VR headsets can be expensive, and many people cannot afford to spend hundreds of dollars on a treatment that has not undergone clinical evaluation.
But even if trying out VR right now isn’t right for you, staying informed on new developments could still be a good idea.
At present, the data tells us that VR therapy can help patients manage a variety of different types of pain. Just as importantly, it has demonstrated no negative side effects, unlike many conventional pain management strategies. And as COVID-19 continues to spread, it’s reasonable to expect that at-home therapies like this will receive much more attention in the near future.
So I’d encourage you to stay informed and keep a close eye on new developments in this field. The treatments that are under review today could well be the treatments that revolutionize your care tomorrow.
What questions do you have about virtual reality for chronic pain?
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