VR: More than Just a Game?

It’s probable…

In a prior blog post, I explored the opioid epidemic and its’ widespread effects. According to a more recent Wired article, approximately 100 people die due to opioid related causes in America each day. Discussion regarding possible solutions to the epidemic has become more prominent in media. For this week’s post, I wanted to explore some of the alternative therapies that are being introduced. I found something pretty interesting.

Scrolling through the “Most Popular” section on Wired, I stumbled across a video entitled: “Doctors Are Giving Real Pain The Virtual Treatment“. This short video illustrates research conducted together by doctors at Cedars-Senai hospital  and researches from Applied VR in Los Angeles. Their aim? To explore the possibility of utilizing Virtual Reality (VR) as a pain reliever.

I was doubtful at first, but the article did present some very convincing evidence.

They conducted a study of 100 patients, in which 50 recieved 10 minutes of VR therapy, then the other 50 watched “relaxing videos in 2 dimensions”. According to Dr. Speigel, a gastroenterologist and the man in charge of implementing the research, the VR pool outperformed the relaxation pool significantly. This research is only preliminary, and the researchers are hoping to move forward and examine the effects VR can have on chronic pain.

Applied VR boasts a large collection of 3-D technology, all of the ‘experiences’ designed to combat pain. Some include voices talking you through meditative breathing exercises while you soar through the amazing scenery from around the world, others are more task-based, like ‘Bear Blast’, shown below. Their theory, the more distracted your peripheral nervous system is, the less pain you will feel.

An image from one of the first ‘experience’ they created, called Bear Blast. This activity was shown to decrease acute pain in 25% of it’s initial research participants.

Prior research has shown similar decreases in pain following the use of VR. In the early 2000s, two burn patients were observed during physical therapy. Virtual reality painted a scene of frosty mountains and allowed participants to fling snowballs at snowmen, mammoths and other creatures. Patients were found to have “significant decreases in pain and increases in mobility and range of motion” when using VR.  Since this research was only conducted on two people, we cannot say with any certainty that this research would apply to other, larger populations. It did, however, inspire other researchers, like Speigel, to explore this field in more detail.

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An illustration of 1/2 of the subjects results for Hoffman’s experiment on VR and pain management. Source: https://www.hitl.washington.edu/projects/vrpain/

Several other studies highlighted in the prior article found similar correlations in areas such as cancer treatment, post-surgical pain, and other routine medical procedures.

Though this may be exciting research, many of the studies conducted have been on small-sized populations (usually right around 100 individuals or less). This could lead to false confirmation, because the sample sizes may be too small to accurately project on to a larger population. None of the researchers in these studies have attempted to do so, it could be a possibility, however, if someone were to see this data for the first time and immediately apply it to a larger population.

Another possible concern is simply that everyone reacts differently to pain. How can we say for certain that all of those individuals in the study were ranking their pain on a similar level? How can one design a program to address every single person’s pain and/or anxiety associated with pain? Is there a level of pain where VR cannot further distract the brain?

Though there are several pieces missing from the research that makes it appear inconclusive, it is very possible that this research could expand rapidly in the near future. With the expansion of VR accessibility (the cost of an Occulus Rift has dropped from $800 to $399 recently) and popularity, more individuals could look into VR as a possible pain management tool. By preventing the necessity of the medication in the first place, VR could serve as a preemptive strike against opioid dependency.

Who knows? Maybe we will leave the doctor’s office with a VR headset instead of a pain pill prescription in the near future. For now, more research must be conducted.




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