Can Virtual Reality Technology Be Used For Pain Relief?


October 10, 2020

What is Virtual Reality Technology?

As technology continues to evolve, virtual reality has completely changed the way that users experience technology. From theme park rides to video games and books, virtual reality has made its mark on today’s culture. Virtual reality (VR) is a computer generated simulation of three-dimensional environments or images that can be interacted with by users using specialized electronic devices such as helmets with screens, headsets with screens, or gloves with sensors. Multimodal stimuli cause these interactions to feel seemingly real giving the experience the name, virtual reality.

How Can VR Technology Be Used For Pain Relief?

As the United States continues to fight the opioid epidemic, alternative therapies for pain management are constantly being researched and discovered. Opioids are a leading cause of injury-related deaths in the United States. Two out of every three overdose deaths involve opioids like prescription opioids, heroin, or fentanyl. This is a true crisis and in an effort to lessen prescription opioid related deaths, physicians are turning to integrative technology practices and using virtual reality for pain management.

California is home to one of the first hospitals in the United States to use virtual reality technology treatment outside of a clinical trial setting. Originally, virtual reality was used as a way for doctors and patients to virtually fly through a patient’s brain, studying and explaining the plan for any upcoming surgeries. Surgeons were able to study the body from various angles and patients experienced decreased anxiety before procedures. One study from 2017 reported an average of a three point reduction on a 1-10 pain scale when patients were treated with virtual reality technology. A seven or eight on a pain scale means patients will receive morphine or fentanyl, however a 3 or 4 on a pain scale means patients will receive Tylenol. This may be the difference in sparing one patient from opioid addiction or opioid related death in the future.

Evidential Support for Virtual Reality Technology

Evidence supports virtual reality’s ability to manage acute procedural pain and studies are continuing to bring forth evidence regarding its effectiveness in treating chronic pain as well. One study investigated the use of virtual reality for treating chronic regional pain syndrome. This pilot study included patients completing target-oriented motor exercises including grasping, reaching, and placing. Participants completed five to eight outpatient virtual reality sessions and all but one patient experienced at least a 50% reduction in their pain intensity scores. Another study explored the use of virtual reality during repeated physical therapy sessions for burn victims. Patients performed range-of-motion exercises under the direction of occupational therapists and the findings showed that pain ratings were significantly lower when patients were immersed in the virtual reality during therapy.

Virtual reality has also been used when patients are in the hospital in isolation, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic. Patients who were alone were able to travel overseas and swim with dolphins, thanks to virtual reality technology. This distraction is calming, reduces stress, anxiety, and depression. This technology has provided pain relief and improve mental health without the same risks that opioids carry. Studies are continuing to look at the way that virtual reality can best benefit patients living with pain, regardless of the cause.