Feb 09 2017

Virtual Reality Adds a New Dimension to Pain Management

Expectant mothers, burn patients and those suffering chronic illness benefit from technology’s growing role in care.

For patients in severe pain, sometimes even the most powerful medication cannot provide sufficient relief.

But what if doctors could effectively reduce such suffering simply by manipulating a patient’s perception? Through virtual reality, they can.

Dr. Ralph Anderson, an obstetrician-gynecologist at Crystal Run Healthcare in Middletown, N.Y., found that by giving expectant mothers VR headsets that immerse them in specially designed 3D environments, anxiety and pain were often reduced.

He’s used the technology in labor room situations ranging from active labor to placement of induction balloons to difficult pelvic exams. Anderson has also used the technology on patients confined to prolonged hospitalizations in the antepartum period “just to get them out of their environment,” he says.

An Aid for Burn Patients

Childbirth is just one example of VR-based pain management offered by providers. Severe burns have introduced another. Even with the use of powerful painkillers, the cleaning that burns require often causes uncontrollable pain for patients, according to Hunter Hoffman, director of the University of Washington’s Virtual Reality Research Center.

When he and colleague David Patterson, a professor in the departments of rehabilitation medicine, surgery and psychology at UW, immersed patients in their specially designed 3D virtual reality game SnowWorld, however, the results were remarkable: Patient pain, Hoffman says, was reduced by as much as 50 percent.

“Pain requires attention,” Hoffman says. “Humans have a limit as to how much information can come into the brain. VR uses up a lot of attention resources, leaving less attention available to process incoming pain signals.”

Anderson echoes those sentiments.

“VR is so effective primarily due to the way it distracts you,” he says. “The technology combined with the apps seem to do this better than anything else I could imagine.”

‘VR Pharmacies’

Researchers at Los Angeles-based Cedars-Sinai Medical Center are also examining the use of VR for chronic pain management. Patients participating in the intervention are using Samsung Gear VR technology once during their inpatient stay, then completing a survey about their opinions and preferences following the experience.

Additional research at Cedars-Sinai will focus on how VR for pain management impacts a patient’s use of narcotics, his or her satisfaction and length of stay.

Dr. Brennan Spiegel, director of Cedars-Sinai Health Services Research, envisions the eventual need for VR pharmacies — libraries of different types of VR content that specialists can match to the needs of specific patients.

While some respond better to being immersed in a game, he says, others may gain greater benefit finding themselves in nature. “We need a way to map a unique patient’s clinical condition and VR preferences to an optimized prescription of VR content, then titrate to the right dose, duration and frequency,” Spiegel says.

While the VR pain management is promising, patients should not expect to see VR replace drugs anytime soon. Hoffman says that the best outcomes he’s seen for patients came from a combination of drug and VR treatments. Both he and Patterson stress that much research remains to be done on VR-based pain treatment. Still, they call the technology’s potential encouraging, given VR’s rapid development, affordability and availability.

“Better control of pain during medical procedures could reduce the need for pain medications post-discharge,” Hoffman says. “And better control of pain during medical procedures could also reduce the patient’s risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder and other severe psychological disorders.”


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