Cedars Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles is one of an increasing number of teaching hospitals testing the technology of how virtual reality can improve patient outcomes. Dr. Brennan Spiegel, one of the clinical researchers leading the charge is focused on pain management. Over the past few years he’s conducted clinical trials that show a pair of 3-D goggles can reduce the experience of pain — all kinds, from joint injuries to cancer — by a quarter. Now he is tackling chronic pain. More than 25 million Americans are afflicted by chronic pain. All too often, addictive painkillers are the only treatment option for those patients. And with opioids claiming the lives of nearly 100 people every day, doctors are scrambling to find non-addictive alternatives. Virtual reality might soon be one of them, if the science can show it really works.
Scientists started probing the power of VR to ease suffering more than 20 years ago. VR pioneer Hunter Hoffman, a researcher at the University of Washington in Seattle, launched the first pain studies in the early 2000s, using an eight-pound helmet hooked up to a computer the size of a small refrigerator. Today, companies, such as AppliedVR, are building collections of 3-D content designed to combat pain, like a VR version of Netflix. “We’re trying to figure out how to prescribe the right experience to the right person based on their needs and their interests,” says President Josh Sackman. So far his team has designed two dozen worlds, each one falling into one of four categories: distraction, relaxation, escape, and education. Patients could choose a variety of experiences, like swimming with dolphins or flying over the fjords of Iceland in a helicopter, or just sitting on a beach and thinking about life. A voice in your ear might talk you through a breathing exercise, or ask you to contemplate the people and things that bring you joy. VR works by distracting your brain. Playing a game distracts the pain by closing down pathways that would transfer pain signals from your peripheral nervous system. The more immersed you are, the less pain you feel.
Why It’s Hot
As Americans learned last week when President Trump declared the opioid crisis an public health emergency, wouldn’t it be great if people coming out of surgeries recovering from an accident could walk out of a hospital with a set of VR goggle instead of a painkiller prescription. In his next study, Dr. Spiegel is working with a major insurance company to evaluate whether or not virtual reality can reduce the number of opioids taken by people who’ve been recently injured on the job. Hopefully, VR will continue showing a strong case that it is an effective way to reach patients. And that it becomes the one, smart alternative to a prescribed painkiller.