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Virtual Reality Could Be Another Tool In the Fight Against the Opioid Epidemic

The immersive technology can aid addicts in recovery and offer alternatives to pain medication.

As states look to battle the deepening opioid crisis across the country, which is proving more deadly than automobile accidents, public health agencies are searching high and low for ways to quell the outbreak.

States and hospitals are turning to geographic information systems, prescription drug monitoring programs, and even artificial intelligence via IBM’s Watson. Now, another well-known technology could help treat and mitigate overdoses: virtual reality.

Treating Addiction with VR

While many associate VR with a new era of gaming, the technology is emerging as a way to treat drug addiction and aid in recovery by putting those addicted into a series of immersive virtual scenarios.

An ongoing study by the University of Houston is finding that putting addicts into virtual scenarios where they would normally experience drug use, such as a party or a “heroin cave,” helps them develop greater confidence in their ability to resist cravings in the real world.

“In traditional therapy we role-play with the patient but the context is all wrong,” said one of the study leaders, Patrick Bordnick, Reuters reports. “They know they’re in a therapist’s office and the drug isn’t there. We need to put patients in realistic virtual reality environments and make them feel they are there with the drug, and the temptation, to get a clearer picture and improve interventions.”

A similar study around cigarette addiction has already shown some success in helping patients resist cravings.

Offering Virtual Alternatives to Pain Medication

A key to slowing the crisis is to prevent addiction in the first place, and virtual reality can offer an outlet for that as well.

In partnership with hospitals across the country, several companies have set out to reduce pain and offer escapes for patients via VR. One company, AppliedVR, is building a library of virtual reality content that aims to alleviate pain, the MIT Technology Review notes. Using Samsung’s Gear VR headset, the company has embarked on several pilot programs with hospitals and doctors to test the effectiveness of the program, including pilots with Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in California.

At Cedars-Sinai, researchers recently published a study in which 100 patients with a range of medical conditions trialed 3D virtual reality therapy imagery and 2D calming nature videos. Those that watched the therapy content, such as a helicopter ride over scenic portions of Iceland or imagery of swimming in the ocean with whales, reported a 24 percent drop in pain during the VR sessions.

“That’s a pretty dramatic reduction for an acute pain,” Brennan Spiegel, who directs health services research at Cedars-Sinai, told the MIT Technology Review. “It’s not too different from what we see from giving narcotics.”

Meanwhile, those watching nature videos with relaxing scenes and music experienced a 13.2 percent reduction in pain, according to the study.

So how does it work?

"We believe virtual reality hijacks the senses, but in a good way," Spiegel said in a press release. "It creates an immersive distraction that stops the mind from processing pain, offering a drug-free supplement to traditional pain management."

While Spiegel stresses that VR certainly won’t be a panacea for pain, the initial results are promising. The researchers are “now conducting a larger trial to measure the impact of virtual reality on the use of pain medications, length of hospital stay and post-discharge satisfaction scores," Spiegel said.

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Jul 12 2017

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