Scientific reports on the use of virtual reality for pain control

Michael Morozov

Michael Morozov

CEO at Jasoren
Michael Morozov

Michael Morozov

CEO at Jasoren
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The importance of pain control and management is obvious, and medical science has been experimenting with various means of reducing pain and anxiety for decades. Virtual reality is considered one of the effective techniques of pain control, and many hospitals across the globe are incorporating it into their treatment routines.
VR’s effectiveness in pain and anxiety reduction is based on its ability to distract the patient of what is happening in real life, making them less focused on painful and unpleasant sensations. Virtual reality, as the only technology capable of creating fully immersive experiences, reaches the level of distraction that can slow the pain signals to the brain, making it better tolerable.

VR use in medical institutions

When virtual reality is used to control pain and anxiety in patients, it does not mean using any VR product available on the market. VR apps intended for use as part of medical treatment are specially designed for that purpose. Their theme, duration, interaction options, soundtrack, controls are built taking into account the patients’ position, their ability to use one or both hands, the medical procedure or condition that is accompanied with VR, and other factors specific for medical institutions.
During VR treatment, the patient is wearing a wireless headset running a VR app that creates a fully immersive relaxing atmosphere – a walk in the forest, an underwater journey, a game for children and adults, or a religious theme for people of faith. As a result, the patient focuses on the experience created by VR, paying less attention to the real world with pain and fear.

Where VR can be used

Numerous studies show the effectiveness of virtual reality in the majority of hospital departments where it can help patients manage pain.

Pediatrics

With children, medical treatment is more complicated due to the factor of fear that most children experience in hospitals. Unlike adults, children are less likely to just “tough it out” and need a lot of persuasions and comfort. As a result, procedures take longer, and the overall number of patients that the doctor or nurse can see is lower.
Another aspect that needs to be considered is the physical struggle that children often launch from fear and anxiety. The consequences may include lower accuracy of the doctor’s or nurse’s actions or the need to repeat a certain manipulation.
VR can effectively resolve these issues by offering a powerful distraction factor to children and taking their attention completely off the actual treatment. A study shows that children experienced 45% to 74% lower pain during vaccination when using VR. In the treatment of burns that are usually extremely painful, patients reported 35% to 50% pain reduction when using VR.

Pediatric oncology

Different types of cancer cause rather intense pain for patients, both chronic and acute. Some cancer treatments also involve painful experiences. These factors, combined with the natural fear and anxiety that children feel towards doctors, make treatment of young cancer patients complicated.
Virtual reality as a distraction technique intended to reduce pain in cancer patients has been found user-friendly and easy to implement. A study showed that pediatric cancer patients experienced less pain during invasive treatments with VR and some even reported pleasant sensations and said they were looking forward to the next procedures if they also involved VR.

Neurology

Virtual reality is studied as a component of rehabilitation protocols for stroke patients and seems to display positive results. Patients exercising in VR show better activity and muscle function.
Another possible application of VR in neurology is the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease:

Surgery

Virtual reality shows significant improvement in patient experience during wide-awake surgeries. Even with local anesthesia and the understanding that there will be no pain, patients are still nervous and anxious when they realize that they are going to be conscious during the operation. The operating theater surroundings raise their anxiety even higher.
VR allows transporting the patient into a virtual world, blocking the reality completely. As a result, patients are more relaxed and comfortable during the operation and tend to feel less pain. The post-operation survey showed that the patients who used VR had less unpleasant sensations during the administration of local anesthesia and the operation itself.
Another similar study confirmed that as many as 80% of wide-awake surgery patients felt less pain, and 100% noted an improvement in their overall hospital experience.
The use of virtual reality also proved beneficial in acute pain management associated with a wound or burn treatment. Immersion in a virtual world allows patients to suffer less during painful procedures and sometimes even misjudge the elapsed time – they think the procedure took shorter than it did.

Chronic disease treatment

Many chronic health conditions are associated with long-term or even permanent pain of various intensity. Different types of cancer cause pain that is difficult to reduce by the available drugs. At a certain level, pain can only be reduced by opioids that create additional problems for the patient – tolerance when the patient starts to need higher doses of the drug to lower the pain and addiction.
A study analyzing the effect of VR on patients suffering from various chronic conditions (fibromyalgia, neck pain, headaches, phantom limb pain, etc.) showed an improvement of pain levels. Another clinical study researches the positive effect of VR on patients with sickle cell disease and the possibility of reducing the use of opioids for such patients and replacing them with virtual reality sessions.

Conclusion

This is a brief account of the potential benefits of virtual reality for pain management and control. The realistic use cases are much wider and may include all areas of medicine where pain and anxiety control is required. Recent studies show that VR not only distracts patients from pain and other unpleasant sensations but can also result in neurophysiologic changes such as those used in exposure therapy.