VR Applications For Pain Management
Pain presents itself in various forms, some of which you might already be familiar with. And while there are several classifications and levels of intensity, separating pain by duration leads us to two types: acute and chronic pain. Acute pain is often managed with mild numbing agents, aspirin, ibuprofen, or as you likely have experienced, we simply “grin and bear it”. Chronic pain, which usually lasts longer than six months, is dealt with pharmacologically, and often with opiates.
Given the major crisis of opioid addiction in America, alternatives are desperately needed for managing chronic pain. Although the “grin and bear it” approach may be acceptable for some, pediatric medical professionals are turning to non-pharmacological alternatives to pain management for children. With nearly all children receiving immunizations from an early age, alternatives that can mitigate the pain would be advantageous for reducing the pain and anxiety associated with pediatrician doctor visits (or for adults with especially low tolerance to pain). Fortunately, non-pharmacological alternatives for pain management are on the rise.
VR offers a great tool for addressing problems of acute and chronic pain management by putting patients in a rewarding virtual context that distracts them from the pain. Significant progress has been made on a number of fronts worth highlighting here.
With respect to acute pain management in children, especially around immunizations and venipuncture, much progress has been made. New VR solutions are being launched on almost a weekly basis, with many of these showing great promise. Some of the most exciting applications actually transport the child into a virtual world where they can play a highly-interactive game. The nurse running the virtual therapy has a display screen so that she has a shared view with the child in real-time. At a point of maximum distraction for the child – often built into the game narrative intentionally – the nurse inserts the needle. Although anecdotal, many children report no feeling of pain or only a minor irritant that quickly recedes.
Solutions that address the more challenging problem of chronic pain, such as those involving back pain, cancer recovery and rehabilitation, or for burn victims during dressing changes continue to be explored and tested. Despite significant challenges, progress is being made. Patients have been able to reduce, and in some cases cease completely, their reliance on addictive drugs like opioids. Applications for pregnant women while in labor are being explored to reduce the need for and reliance on epidurals.
Pain management is an exciting area that is ripe for the application of immersive, VR technologies. Solutions for acute pain in children, and for chronic pain sufferers of all types are growing in prevalence and are easing people’s pain — one experience at a time.
Summary and Future Directions
The use of VR technology in all aspects of healthcare is increasing. In this report we outline four use cases that have grown significantly in the last several years. In all cases, the success of VR can be attributed to the way in which it engages the user’s brain. The success of VR applications in patient education and healthcare provider training, senior care and caregiver support, and mental health, therapy, and addiction are all grounded in the fact that VR broadly engages experiential, emotional, cognitive and behavioral learning systems in the brain in synchrony. The majority of other tools and technologies recruit only cognitive systems in the brain, and are thus much less effective. In pain management, VR has the capacity to transport an individual from the pain that they are experiencing to another place where they do not experience the pain. Whether activation in pain centers is reduced, or whether the user is simply being distracted, the outcome is a reduction in pain.
The future of VR in healthcare is bright. Although not discussed in detail in this report, one of the biggest advantages of VR is the ability to collect a broad set of data quickly and efficiently. Whether subjective ratings of satisfaction and confidence, or objective tests of one’s knowledge or ability to make the right decision, data collection is straightforward and simple. Other measures like eye gaze patterns can also be examined. Because eye gaze and eye fixation provide a window onto attentional processes, at a minimum these can be used, along with subjective and objective measures to optimize VR content.
As other technologies come on line such as real-time and natural haptic interactions, olfactory cues, and AI-driven real-time voice and facial recognition, the use cases for VR will grow. We are especially excited about advances in medical device training, surgical training, and communication, and empathy training. The future of VR in healthcare is bright, and we look forward to being a part of this future – one experience at a time.
Find the full 5-part series here:
Part One: The Neuroscience and Four Use Cases.
Part Two: Patient Education & Health Professional Training.
Part Three: Preparing the Senior Care Workforce.
Part Four: Mental Health, Therapy & Addiction.
Part Five: Pain Management.