How virtual reality is helping patients cope with pain?

Worldwide, it is estimated that about one in five, or about 1.5 billion people, suffer from chronic pain, and its prevalence increases with age. While chronic pain is defined as pain that lasts more than three months, acute pain is pain that is quite common and most often transient. The prevalence of pain in individuals leads to substantial healthcare costs and lost productivity.

VR and its role in pain management

While VR technology was originally recognized for its immense value in the gaming sector, its application has now expanded into a variety of areas. Some of the uses of VR are specifically in the field of healthcare. These include anxiety disorder, physical rehabilitation, phobias, the treatment of psychiatric disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder and pain management.

There is considerable research that encourages the use of VR for reducing acute pain when medical procedures are being carried out. Meanwhile, the use of VR for managing chronic pain is still at a nascent stage.

Before we explore how VR is being used for pain management, let us understand what exactly we mean by the term VR or Virtual Reality? VR specifically refers to computer generated imagery and hardware designed to transport users to a virtual world. The specially built VR hardware, which could include headphones with sound/music and noise reduction, a head-mounted display (HMD), a joystick for navigation/manipulation of the virtual environment (VE) and a rumble pad, helps bring sights and sounds to VR users in a way that is totally immersive.

Techniques for using virtual reality in pain management

Let us look at some of the techniques through which VR could be used for pain management and reduction. Since stress, depression, fear and other emotions contribute to pain, all the strategies listed below are used to control the mood of the patient and to reduce the stress and anxiety felt by the patient. A control of these symptoms is found to reduce the pain felt by patients. These include:

  1. Meditation and breathing exercises
  2. Mindfulness (focusing on the present moment)
  3. Guided imagery – This is a relaxation technique to improve the overall wellness of the patient through guided thoughts and images. For example, by envisioning that pain has left one's body.
  4. Cognitive behavioural therapy where the narrator tries to redirect a patient’s negative thoughts to positive ones

 Areas where VR is helping patients deal with pain

Clinical settings and experimental studies have shown that participants who are immersed in VR, experience lower levels of pain and unpleasantness, and they like to use VR again during any painful medical procedures.

Let us see some of the areas where VR is making a difference:

Burn care

As we are all aware, burn wounds cause tremendous pain and discomfort to patients. Studies have shown that using VR technology for burn care decreases anxiety, pain levels, unpleasantness and the time consumed just thinking about pain. In fact, the use of VR for reducing pain and anxiety during burn care procedures and during the rehabilitation of burn survivors is one of the most deeply researched areas of VR technology. Another study confirmed that analgesia (medications used to relieve pain) when combined with VR was more successful in lowering pain and distress than using analgesia alone.

VR during labour

Childbirth, an extremely painful experience for women, could also benefit from VR and researchers are investigating the option. Research at the Cedars Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles has shown that women who used a VR headset for a portion of their labour reported a reduction in pain, while women who did not use the virtual reality tool not only had a statistically significant increase in pain but also higher heart rates.

Cancer pain

Cancer treatments and procedures, such as chemotherapy, port access and lumbar puncture are usually painful and VR technology has been studied as a technique to decrease pain and unpleasant sensations. Children and adolescents who require port access (to draw blood and deliver intravenous medication), have also been found to respond positively to the use of VR distractions. Such tools were found to help with reducing pain ratings and pulse rate.

Routine medical procedures

Apart from all the above-mentioned areas, even routine medical procedures like drawing blood, immunisation and intravenous placement, can be painful and anxiety-inducing for some recipients, especially children. Healthcare providers have routinely seen that VR increases procedural cooperation among children, while decreasing their anxiety and distress.Thus, VR in combination with standard care often facilitates a smoother procedure for patients. For example, they require fewer needle pricks.

While there was concern that routinely using VR for pain reduction and management might habituate patients to VR and thus reduce its effectiveness, studies have been encouraging and have proven otherwise. The encouraging results showed that repeated exposure to virtual reality did not alter its effectiveness in pain management.

What the future holds

Applying VR for pain management and reduction is an area where there is still a lot of ongoing research. The debate is on whether the technology can provide sustained pain reduction in the case of long-lasting chronic pain, or is limited to offering a distraction in acute pain situations. So far VR has shown the most promise as a complementary pain management practice for acute painful medical procedures.

With several benefits seen in the use of virtual reality, there are higher possibilities of big technology companies and healthcare players getting convinced and investing in the same. If research from academic centres continues to remain encouraging and if VR content shows improvements in terms of faster recovery of patients and lower pain scores, it may soon be only a matter of time before we see VR being adopted at a level that was never imagined.

How Infosys BPM can help

Tap into Infosys BPM’s Healthcare business process outsourcing unit to help you address the changing dynamics of the healthcare industry. IBPM’s solutions are designed to improve business performance as well as enhance patient outcomes.

Recent Posts