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Virtual Reality Can Conquer Real Pain

Despite all efforts to combat the opioid epidemic, the crisis continues to destroy lives and contribute to the growing gap in life expectancy by income and education in the U.S. But it appears that some relief may come from an unexpected source: virtual reality. Anyone who thinks virtual reality is just a sideshow for gamers should pay close attention to the stunning results it’s achieving in the medical world.

A virtual reality game called SnowWorld — in which patients throw snowballs at snowmen while virtually immersed in a white, snow-covered environment — has been used for more than 20 years to relieve the pain experienced by burn victims, and it’s been surprisingly effective. As David Rhew, the chief medical officer at Samsung Electronics America, recently explained to me, the promising results from burn management have led to broader use of virtual reality in an array of medical settings, including the type of chronic pain that leads to opioid abuse.

In one trial at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles involving 100 patients experiencing significant chronic pain, half the patients played a 15-minute virtual reality game called Pain RelieVR, in which the patient tries to shoot balls at moving objects in an immersive 360-degree environment. The other half were shown an ordinary video of relaxing nature scenes.

Sixty-five percent of the virtual reality patients experienced pain relief, compared with 40 percent in the control group, and the change among the game-players was more substantial. Virtual reality seems to do more than a two-dimensional movie to shift the brain’s experience in a way that helps patients handle pain.

To be sure, this study involved only a brief virtual reality experience, and it did not randomly assign the patients to each group. But other studies of virtual reality in chronic pain management are showing similar results. The conclusion of a review done several years ago remains true today: “Virtual reality has consistently been demonstrated to decrease pain, anxiety, unpleasantness, time spent thinking about pain and perceived time spent in a medical procedure.”

By Peter R. Orszag | Bloomberg

Image Credit: Miguel Rojo/AFP/Getty Images

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