When Erin Martucci declined an epidural during labor, her doctors offered her a virtual reality (VR) headset. Slipping it on, she was mentally transported to a relaxing beach vista, where she could hear crashing waves and chirping birds, all while lying in her hospital bed in New York. A soothing voice coached her to focus on crashing waterfalls and seagulls flying circles overhead, as well as her breathing. The virtual experience helped her block a lot of pain during the two hours before she was ready to push.
Martucci is not the only patient who has used VR to escape pain. These immersive, multisensory environments that nudge our brains into thinking we are somewhere else are emerging as powerful alternatives to opioids for everything from burn injuries to stroke.
“VR is becoming the new go-to tool to reduce pain and anxiety in several hospitals and doctors’ offices,” said Matthew Stoudt, co-founder and CEO of AppliedVR, the startup that designed the virtual-reality environment for Martucci ‘s hospital. “Our platform is already being used in about 100 hospital systems.”
The idea, according to Stoudt, is that we can alleviate pain by manipulating how the human mind works. “We are not good at multitasking. If we swamp the brain with an overload of inputs in a virtual world, its capacity to process pain goes down,” he explained. “The less you focus on pain, the better you feel.”
Brennan Spiegel, the health services research director of Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles, agrees. “[VR] will give doctors and patients more options than medicines alone.”
Having treated more than 500 patients using VR technology and having recently published a study on the impact of VR on patients suffering from back, shoulder, foot pain, post-surgical wounds, and severe abdominal pain, Spiegel would know.
The experiments went something like this. Spiegel and his team at Cedars-Sinai asked patients suffering from pain to put on a VR headset and explore an immersive environment for 10 minutes. A control group watched a 2-D relaxation video for the same amount of time. The two groups were then asked to report if they felt better. At the end of the study, 65 percent of the VR group reported a reduction in pain, compared to 40 percent in the TV group. When asked to rate their pain on a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being the highest), the VR group’s reported pain went down from 5.4 to 4.1, and the TV group’s pain dropped to only 4.8.
This reduction of patients’ pain by an average of 24 percent is a big deal as it relates to opioid prescriptions—and their associated addictions. According to the CDC, even a one-day opioid prescription carries a 6 percent risk of use up to one year later. And if patients get a 30-day initial prescription, their chance of being on opioids for a year rises to 45 percent.
By Pragati Verma | Forbes
Image Credit: Pragati Verma/Forbes