Virtual Reality Can Help Relieve Severe Pain in Patients, Study Finds

The study was carried out on 120 patients who rated their pain levels over the course of two days.
Chris Young

Virtual reality (VR) is by no means a mainstream technology. Though companies have long been claiming that we are on the verge of a VR and AR revolution, that reality might still be some way off.

There is, no doubt, great potential in the technology.

A new study has just been released saying that VR has been shown to ease severe chronic pain in patients.


VR Patient Study

The pain levels of 120 hospitalized patients were recently recorded as part of a study involving VR. Half of these patients were selected at random to use virtual reality headsets, for set periods - six times over the course of two days.

The other half of the patients were used as a control group and were told to watch health and wellness programs on the TV.

All of the individual patients, from both sets, rated their pain as being at least a 3 out of 10 over the previous 24 hours - 0 representing no pain, and 10 the worst pain imaginable.

As per Reuters, the VR patients reported an average decline in pain scores of up to 1.72 points. The control group, meanwhile, revealed a decrease of only 0.46 points on average.

Virtual Reality Can Help Relieve Severe Pain in Patients, Study Finds
A VR showcase at the Mobile World Congress, 2016. Source: Maurizio Pesce/Flickr

What's more, it seems the worse pain a patient is in, the more effective VR is.

Amongst the patients who initially rated their pain at a 7 out of 10 or higher, average pain score reductions were 3.04 points with VR. Without VR, scores were only at 0.93.

A time acceleration illusion

“We found that VR helped reduce pain across many types of pain - gastrointestinal, cancer, orthopedic, neurologic, etc. - and that it reduced pain the most in people with the most severe pain,” Dr. Brennan Spiegel, lead author of the study and professor of medicine and public health at the University of California, Los Angeles, told Reuters.

“It creates an illusion of time acceleration, effectively shortening the length of pain episodes,” Spiegel continued. “And it nips signals in the bud at their origin, blocking pain from reaching the brain.”

While the study authors say VR has great potential, they point to the fact that pain levels can remain substantial, despite the reduction. It seems that more work is needed.

The patients wore a Samsung Gear Oculus VR headset and were able to choose from several different VR experiences. These included guided relaxation, natural environments, simulated flights, and animated games.

One question the study leaves open is whether video games provide any better pain relief than the more passive experiences.

Much like the technology itself, scientific knowledge on the pain-relieving properties of VR is still in its early days.

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