Virtual reality as a painkiller

Man in VR during therapy

Virtual therapeutic reality is an effective clinical practice for pain management. A study published in the journal Plos One measures the impact and effectiveness of this therapy.

Nearly half of hospitalized patients experience pain, of which one quarter is considered “unbearable.” Pain treatment is traditionally based on pharmacological management, including opioids, which can yield inconsistent and sub-optimal results. Data from the United States Center for Disease Control reveals that even one day of opioid therapy predicts a six percent risk of dependency one year later. Thus, there is a pressing need for safe, effective, drug-free solutions for pain management in hospitalized patients.

Virtual therapeutic reality (RMV) has emerged as an effective, non-pharmacological way of treating pain. Users wear a screened viewer on their head that creates the feeling of being transported into realistic, three-dimensional worlds. The theory behind virtual therapeutic reality defines that by stimulating the visual cortex and involving other senses, RMV acts as a distraction to limit the user’s processing of nociceptive stimuli.

By reducing the size and cost of VR devices, RMV has been used in many clinical settings to help treat anxiety disorders, control pain, support physical rehabilitation and distract patients during wound care. For example, RMV is effective in reducing pain during severe burns bandage changes as an alternative to opioids. Similarly, RMV reduces pain and provides positive distraction during procedures such as intravenous line placement and dental interventions.

The researchers performed a prospective, randomized and comparative efficacy study in hospitalized patients with an average pain score ≥3 on 10 points. Patients in the experimental group received a library of 21 virtual reality therapeutic (RMV) experiences administered with the Samsung Gear Oculus viewer; control patients watched specialized television programs to promote health and well-being.

The clinical staff followed the usual treatments; the study interventions were not recorded. The primary result was the pain reported by the patient using a numerical scale, as recorded by the nursing staff during the usual care. The pre- and post-operative pain scores were compared immediately after initial treatment and after 48 and 72 hours.

The sample consisted of 120 subjects (61 VR; 59 control). The average difference within the subject in pre- and post-operative pain scores was greater in the RMV group (-1.72 points; SD 3.56) than in the control group (-0.46 points; SD 3.01); this difference was significant in favour of RMV (P < .04). When limited to the subgroup of patients with severe basic pain (≥7 points), the effect of RMV was more pronounced than for control (-3.04, SD 3.75 vs. -0.93, SD 2.16 points; P = .02). In regression analyses that regulate preoperative pain, time, age, sex and type of pain, RMV produced an incremental reduction in pain of 0.59 (P = 0.03) and 0.56 (P = 0.04) points compared to control during the post-operative periods of 48 and 72 hours, respectively.

The conclusions of the study indicate that RMV significantly reduces pain compared to an active control condition in hospitalized patients. RMV is more effective in severe pain.

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