Playing virtual reality games or relaxing in a virtual nature setting might help ease chronic pain, particularly when symptoms are severe, a new experiment suggests.
The 120 hospitalized patients in the study had rated their pain as at least a 3 out of 10 over the previous 24 hours. Half of the patients were chosen at random to use virtual reality headsets three times a day over the next 48 hours; the other half served as a control group and were told to watch health and wellness programming on the television in their rooms that included guided relaxations, poetry readings and health topic discussions.
With virtual reality (VR), patients reported an average decline in pain scores of 1.72 points, compared with an average decrease of 0.46 points for the control group.
"We found that VR helped reduce pain across many types of pain - gastrointestinal, cancer, orthopedic, neurologic, etc. - and that it reduced pain in people with the most severe pain," said Dr. Brennan Spiegel, lead author of the study and a professor of medicine and public health at Cedars-Sinai Health System and the University of California, Los Angeles.
Pain ratings of 0 represented no pain at all and scores of 10 represented the worst pain imaginable.
Among people who initially rated their pain at least a 7 out of 10, average pain score reductions were 3.04 points with VR compared with 0.93 in the control group.
While the experiment wasn't designed to test how VR helps to ease pain, it may work in several ways, Spiegel said.
"It creates an illusion of time acceleration, effectively shortening the length of pain episodes," Spiegel said. "And it nips signals in the bud at their origin, blocking pain from reaching the brain."
Virtual reality technology has been around for decades, first coming to prominence when the military used it for flight simulators. The earliest hardware filled an entire room, but as the technology has become smaller and cheaper to produce, it's increasingly being used for a variety of medical purposes including trauma and phobia therapies, wound care, physical therapy, dental pain relief and burn treatment.
Today, mass-produced virtual reality devices may require no more than a smartphone and special headsets to operate, and a growing number of people use these gadgets to play video games and take lifelike, three-dimensional tours of places they might not be able to visit in real life.
In the current study, people in the VR group could choose among 21 different experiences including guided relaxation in natural environments, a simulated flight, and animated games. They selected experiences on a mobile phone app and wore a Samsung Gear Oculus VR headset.
One goal of using VR as a pain management tool is to reduce the use of addictive opioid painkillers, the study team writes in PLoS ONE. There was no meaningful difference in opioid use between the VR group and the control group in the study, however.
"The intervention seems certainly better than the control, but is not a final solution since pain levels remained substantial, above 4.5 on average," said Max Ortiz Catalan, head of the Biomechatronics and Neurorehablitation Laboratory at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden.
Part of the challenge is that patients can experience many types of pain with a wide variety of underlying causes, Catalan, who wasn't involved in the study, said by email.
"There is no silver bullet," Catalan said.