As the United States teeters on the brink of a national state of emergency, more than 100 Americans now die every day due to opioid overdose. Ted Jones, a clinical psychologist with Pain Consultants of East Tennessee and an expert on the front lines of pain and addiction issues, has been in the heart of the crisis in Tennessee where the problem is particularly grave.
“Here in southern Appalachia we are having a big, big problem. Folks debate whether the term ‘epidemic’ is appropriate or not, but no one will deny that there is a major issue as overdoses are on the rise,” he says.
Jones says multiple contributors may be to blame for the problem, including pharmaceutical companies, greedy providers, and an overall ignorance about the dangers of prescribing opioid treatments.
Yet amid this backdrop of crisis, a new suite of digital tools, including virtual reality, are emerging as possible alternatives to treating pain.
Using virtual reality to treat pain dates back at least as far as the mid-90s, when a cognitive psychologist at the University of Washington, Hunter Hoffman, developed SnowWorld, a video game that tunnels players through ice-covered canyons while aiming snowballs at moving penguins and snowmen. The game demonstrated success in significantly reducing pain for burn victims suffering from extreme levels of acute pain.
According to Josh Sackman, president and co-founder of AppliedVR, a company working to commercialize VR software similar to SnowWorld, VR is effective at reducing acute pain because it can divert a patient’s attention away from the pain.
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