Scientists Are Testing Virtual Reality For Pain Relief

Earlier this month, scientists published a ground-breaking study in the Journal of Medical Internet Research discussing the efficacy of virtual reality (VR) as a means for pain relief.

The study examined pain relief in patients that were receiving a bone marrow biopsy, a procedure that is notoriously painful and uncomfortable. In the study, participants were randomly assigned one of two methods for pain control. The first was the traditional method, entailing a mixture of nitrous oxide and oxygen, while the second method entailed the use of a VR headset. Specifically, for the VR option, patients could choose from four imaginary 3-dimensional VR environments to interact with during the procedure, including “Nohara (dream-like walk on the country side), Kaitei (seabed exploration), Uchuu (space walk), and Mori (dream-like walk in the forest.” The participants wore headphones for complete immersion, given that the “environments were designed to induce a state of relaxation and light sedation through slow passive contemplative exploration without inducing a hypnotic state.”

The results were quite profound. The scientists found that patients did not perceive a significant difference in the intensity of pain between the traditional pain treatment method versus the VR treatment option. Furthermore, anxiety scores and blood pressures also did not differ significantly between the two cohorts. Most importantly, the scientists deemed that the study was incredibly useful as it illustrated that the VR based pain relief method was not only well tolerated, but also that the patients and physicians that used the VR method were extremely satisfied.

The potential applications of this technology are incredibly powerful. The global pain crisis is one of the most important and devastating situations currently taking place in the healthcare industry. In fact, “More than 100 million Americans struggle with chronic pain, according to one Institute of Medicine estimate, at an annual cost of as much as $635 billion in treatment and lost productivity.”

Chronic pain has become so prevalent that in the United States alone, the pain management therapeutics market was estimated to be valued at nearly $6.75 billion in 2021 alone, and will likely grow to $12.55 billion by 2028.

VR technology, though still in its infancy, has come a long way with regards to the value that it can provide. Many technology giants are seeing increased potential applications for this hardware and are continuing to invest in it. One of the most prominent examples is Meta’s VR products, which are being developed for multi-application use, ranging from advanced gaming, to reality-like immersion, and even for business and professional use. The wide range of opportunities to collaborate, educate, and take part in full immersion using Meta’s hardware makes it a promising medium to integrate potential pain relief modalities in the future.

Similarly, Microsoft’s incredible strides with Hololens is a game-changer with regards to virtual and augmented reality. The company has already introduced the product into the manufacturing, engineering, and education sectors. With regards to healthcare, Hololens is being tested for applications in teaching, virtual correspondence, and even direct patient care delivery. Given its immense progress already in the healthcare sector, Hololens is also a natural fit to further explore new modalities of pain treatment.

Indeed, more research is required and many more such studies will have to be undertaken. However, with the integration of the right technology and the appropriate guardrails that prioritize patient safety, the above idea is a promising effort to help resolve one of healthcare’s most important problems.