How Can VR Be Used To Treat Chronic Pain?
When you’re in pain, they say try not to think about it and it won’t hurt so much, and this concept is being extrapolated in medicine at the moment to involve live 360 video production in the form of virtual reality. There’s a new news article almost every day looking at the applications of VR in pain management, but where we might understand how VR can act as a momentary distraction for children so they don’t become so distressed by hospital injections, but understanding how and why it would be used for something like chronic pain is a different ball game.
The idea of virtual reality therapy, as outlined by The New York Times, goes further than just distraction in everyday terms. In actuality, virtual reality therapy can have a physiological effect that can dumb down pain, according to Jeffrey Gold, director of the paediatric pain management clinic at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.”It’s different from reading a book or playing with a toy. It’s a multi-sensory experience that engages a person’s attention on a much deeper level,” he says. “It’s like an endogenous narcotic providing a physiological and chemical burst that causes you to feel good.”
The multi-sensory nature of virtual reality works by flooding the brain with so much information that it is too busy to accept any more, including that form pain, whether that be an injection or chronic pain. It’s already used in a programme called SnowWorld, which is used to help treat burn patients, were cleaning their injuries can be just as painful as how they were inflicted in the first place.
How, then, does this work in terms of long term, continuous pains related to chronic illnesses? Virtual reality is being used to supplement and enhance other, non drug-related pain management techniques such as cognitive behavioural therapy.
It still is a case of when the VR is turned off, the stimulus is gone and the pain will return, however, evidence suggests that when you do try to learn these pain management techniques in a virtual reality setting, you’re more likely to retain them and use them in your life, because you are fully immersed in the experience and can’t give your attention to anything else.
Chronic pain sufferers are also more averse to movement and exercise for risk of exacerbating their condition, but virtual reality also offers a safe space to slowly open up their range of movement, with the virtual reality setting blocking out small amounts of pain, building their confidence along with their movement.
It’s not about a cure, or so much as a quick fix for pain management, but in a country such as the US which is suffering with addiction to pain management opioids, interest and research into VR as a tool is growing. By teaching new skills inside an immersive environment and even leaning on ideas such as mindfulness, the concept of using virtual reality in pain management is to work towards using the mind to change the brain, thinking yourself well instead of sick.