Study finds VR therapy helps reduce pain for patients

The potential for VR to transform medical training and patient care is well known at this point, with exciting new applications popping up every week. 

However, the technology could also have a startling application for patients being treated in hospital.

A new study by non-profit medical centre Cedars-Sinai has recorded results that indicate that VR therapy could have significant impact on reducing pain for hospitalised patients.

half of the patients received VR therapy that included calming videos of helicopter rides over scenic Iceland

Published in JIMR Mental Health, the study focused on 100 patients who reported pain scores of 3 or higher on the Numeric Pain Rating Scale, which is given as a score out of 10.

Half of the patients received VR therapy that included calming videos of helicopter rides over scenic Iceland. On the whole these patients reported a 24% drop in pain scores after the therapy.

The other half were shown a standard 2D nature video. This also resulted in a reduction of pain, but at 13% it was not quite as effective as VR.

A new potential pain management tool?

The results of the study open the door for further research into an exciting new potential application for VR.

“Results indicate virtual reality may be an effective tool along with traditional pain management protocols,” said Brennan Spiegel, MD, director of Cedars-Sinai Health Services Research.

“This gives doctors and patients more options than medication alone.”

What might be causing the pain reduction caused by both sets of calming videos? At this stage, what exactly is happening remains unknown.

it creates an immersive distraction that stops the mind from processing pain

Spiegel thinks that the benefit is likely coming from ‘immersive distraction’. While the mind is so deeply engaged with the content, it limits the amount to which the brain can perceive other stimuli such as pain.

Spiegel continued:

“We believe virtual reality hijacks the senses, but in a good way.”

“It creates an immersive distraction that stops the mind from processing pain, offering a drug-free supplement to traditional pain management.”

The VR therapy given to patients lasted 15 minutes, meaning that pain could begin to feel more pronounced once the session is over. Spiegel says that a larger trial is now underway. 

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