The Healing Reality of Virtual Reality

The Healing Reality of Virtual Reality

The opioid crisis in America has risen into near epidemic proportions. In fact, The U.S. Department of Health has its own site dedicated to opioid information including, that on an average day in America 78 people die from an “opioid-related overdose”. Recently, the Surgeon General has initiated an open letter asking doctors to cut back on writing opioid scripts.

Many attempts at relieving chronic pain without using prescription drugs are being sought. Alternative therapies such as acupuncture, meditation and botanical medicine but one new, fun non-invasive possibility is playing video games, particularly on a virtual reality platform.

The World of VR

Virtual reality (VR) is experiencing a simulated three-dimensional image through a full head helmet with built in screen and sound sometimes accompanied by sensory perception gloves. It creates an environment that makes the user feel as if they are in a new 360 degree reality with no artificial barriers.

The VM experience encourages exploration where the user can manipulate objects and perform a series of actions making them feel as if they have been transported to another place. VM is not only used for entertainment as it is commonly used in teaching scenarios such as those applied to flying fighter jets, performing surgery, and fighting crime.

New studies are now showing how VR may be able to help people relieve chronic pain without using prescription drugs like opioids.

Unique Applications

Video games often take a bad rap as many parents struggle with pulling their children from flickering screens usually depicting violence. However, there is a good side behind some of these platforms which have shown significant improvement when applied to patients such as autistic children as well as the elderly.

A recent study published in Royal Society Open Science investigated how VR with sound (which most have) presented as a good application to chronic pain. It was mentioned how it was important to apply the highest level of VR technology to gain effective results concluding that,

“…we compared the relative effectiveness of playing a VR game, listening to sound and the combination of the two on pain tolerance in cold-pressor trials. Participants demonstrated the predicted behaviour with exposure to both a VR game and supplementary sound increasing pain tolerance to a greater extent…”

Although sound alone, such as music, improved pain levels the combination of sound and visual stimulation was significantly higher. The mechanism is believed to be ‘cognitive distraction’, forcing the brain to take in the outer body experience while placing pain on the back burner for a bit.

In the Helmet

There are many environments VR can reproduce down to the most minute specifics making the user that much more immersed in the scene. One scenario studied was the VR experience called Snow World where the user is involved in a snow covered environment filled with snowmen, penguins, wooly mammoths and others to throw snowballs at.

Other scenarios include VR puzzles where you need to escape a room or scene; physical fitness such as jogging through a specific atmosphere; or walking through nature without gameplay.

Cyber Sickness

Although VR is not completely integrated as a healing tool it is being used in many clinical trials. However, one contraindication reported was cyber sickness. Some participants found that they could not handle the feeling of “floating” through the dreamlike state which made them I’ll, similar to a rollercoaster ride affecting the inner ear.

Clinical Uses

As the mechanism of VR shows positive distraction results the clinical uses are currently being considered. One is dentistry where the patient can be fitted with a VR device rather than given medication during the procedure or a combination of both. A study published in the journal PLoS One reported,

“Dental anxiety is associated with the tendency to experience negative or threatening thoughts concerning treatment and this may prevent patients arranging and attending dental appointments. Our findings suggest that VR distraction has the potential to influence people’s memories of a potentially anxiety-inducing medical event.”

Other applications may include non-invasive surgery, psychotherapy and even getting a haircut! (not really a clinical use but an example of how it may integrate into mainstream tasks).

The healing reality of virtual reality is just beginning. Chances are you will see more of it being used in many different settings using the natural healing and calming capabilities of the brain rather than dependence on synthetic prescriptions.