Science Explains How Virtual Reality Is Used For Pain Management

Science Explains How Virtual Reality Is Used For Pain Management

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Ever have your back go out? You can’t sit, stand, lie down, or walk for any significant period. The pain doesn’t let you rest or relax. Your muscles spasm if you move the wrong way. To put it mildly, it is not pleasant.

To achieve pain management and break the cycle, you need to decrease the pain so your muscles can relax and stop biting into your spinal nerves. The side effects of pain killers can be almost as welcome (read: unwelcome) as the pain. Your brain is fuzzy, you’re tired and can’t focus, and your mouth is dry.

For many of us, painkillers do the trick, and we are up and functioning within a week or a month. Take a moment and imagine having to live that way. Imagine having pain every day of your life.

The Problem of Pain

Whether it is caused by a disease or an accident, chronic pain is a legitimate problem for many people. In 2016, approximately 20% of the U.S experienced chronic pain, and about 8% had that pain decrease their ability to do at least one significant life activity. This study from the National Health Interview Survey was analyzed by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institute of Health, Kaiser, the Stanford Division of Pain Medicine, and Yale University.

Chronic pain leads to restricted mobility, anxiety, depression, and decreased quality of life. Opioid dependency connects to chronic pain, which adds to the $560 billion in annual medical expenses and disability programs and loss of productivity in the United States.

The effects of chronic pain on individuals, their families, and the added government financial burden leads companies to seek alternative methods of treatment. One such alternative is virtual reality. Science explains how virtual reality proves useful for pain management.

What is Virtual Reality?

The definition of virtual reality means “near-reality,” referring to how it is a sensory representation of reality through a computerized environment.

Our daily experience of life is based on our senses: the ordinary five senses we first think of and other senses that are considered more automatic. Combined with our brain processing information, these senses create an in-depth amount of data.

The knowledge of how our senses and brain create reality as we know it is the premise behind virtual reality. If we can present different sensory information to the brain, our perceived reality can change. This change in sensory input is achieved through various tools such as headsets, special gloves, and omnidirectional treadmills.

Creating a fully immersive environment requires full synchronization of the material in conjunction with understanding how our physiology works. For example, we see things at 180 degrees. Therefore, any headset must accommodate that to ensure that we do not pick up any discrepancy. When everything is implemented correctly, it creates a sense of presence or the sensation that you are genuinely in the designed environment.

Everything should be happening in real-time and within the expected field of vision. The person’s actions must be happening according to their reactions to a sensory stimulus. For example, if they touch something which appears to be a flame, they should be able to jerk their hand back immediately. Without this, the sensation of immersion is lost because the brain understands it is false. This changes how the person responds.

Virtual reality helps train surgeons, fighter pilots, and more. There has been a lot of discussion about using VR for education, testing products, and even more field training areas.

Virtual Reality as a Pain Blocker

Do you remember when you hurt yourself as a child, and your parent or friend distracted you by making you laugh or by talking? For the time you felt distracted, you didn’t feel the pain.

That is the premise behind using In-home therapeutic Virtual Reality to block pain. Part of healing an injury requires physical therapy or movement. That movement feels more difficult for the patient because it hurts a lot. This limits the motion and limits how often you do the activity and your mental bias towards doing it.

Pain also inhibits a person’s ability to retain information and learn new techniques.

Through Virtual Reality, the subject fully immerses in another world where their senses flood with different stimuli. This flooding of stimuli doesn’t allow room for the brain to also perceive the sensation of pain. This method of blocking pain has proven so helpful for everything from giving a child an IV to helping burn victims and those who have had spinal damage from an accident.

Larry Benz, a physical therapist, and chief executive of Confluent Health, made it clear that VR does not completely cure pain. It is to be used adjacent to treatments which help patients learn how to handle and decrease the level of pain. These additional treatments take months before the benefits are noticed. Dr. Benz clarifies that VR can help the patient retain information and engage and comply with the lesson.

The VR Program for Pain Management

Dr. Hoffman was one of the first to create a VR program. He created it to make it more comfortable for pain victims to have their bandages changed. He stated, “Using VR as an adjunct, we can teach coping skills, techniques patients can use on their own that will help diminish chronic pain.” He added, “Learning changes the brain and gives patients something that continues to work when they take the helmet off. When patients realize their pain isn’t inevitable, they’re more receptive to doing physical therapy exercises and more likely to move on their own.”

VR and the use of hypnosis were pioneered by David R. Patterson of the University of Washington. He says that the combination of hypnosis and VR can increase a person’s mindfulness. This mindfulness allows you to focus on the moment rather than focusing on the pain. Being able to teach mindfulness can teach one’s brain not to react to painful thoughts or emotions. Mindfulness can also help to quiet the body and the nervous system, as in meditation.

Some of the programs educated the patients about how the nervous system works and about how pain affects the body. This education, combined with using VR to teach meditation and breathing methods, can create an effective means for patients to help themselves cope. The VR program shows the patient the physiological changes your body undergoes as you alter your breathing and calm your nervous system. It positively reinforces new skills.

VR Program and Physical Therapy

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Being able to use virtual reality to calm yourself makes physical therapy more accessible. Physical therapy is important to bring mobility back to the joints, increase blood flow, and improve range of motion. This activity also helps the body kickstart its natural healing process. Physical therapy even aids in allowing patients to sleep better. A lack of sleep contributes to the sensation of pain and decreases your ability to cope. Many people who live in chronic pain are resistant to physical therapy due to the initial increase in pain. Using VR takes the pain and stress element out of it so they can begin to improve.

In a study published in 2016, one five-minute virtual reality experience decreased chronic pain by an average of 33 percent. Yet, many doctors advise that VR is not yet ready for the mainstream treatment of chronic pain. Thus, it cannot replace medication. Hopefully, through coping skills and physical therapy made easier through VR, patients will reduce pain medication or at least decrease the time they must take them.

Josh Sackman, president of AppliedVR, stated that VR had decreased the number of painkillers needed and the number of hospital stays. Since anxiety and pain interconnect, diminishing the anxiety one feels before a procedure and using it again afterward speeds up one’s recovery time.


Pain has several effects on those who are experiencing it. Unfortunately, those effects tend to be cyclical. As the patient is feeling pain, they simultaneously have emotions of anger, frustration, stress, and anxiety – which causes the muscles to tighten up or spasm. This tightening only increases pain.

The pain also prevents adequate sleep, which decreases your tolerance to pain, making the pain feel worse. As the pain continues over time, it affects one’s sense of self and control over their life. This is what generally leads to depression and further anxiety.

The key to pain management lies in breaking the cycle of pain.

The use of virtual reality has begun breaking the cycle of pain – whether used proactively before surgery, after an unfortunate accident or with the diagnosis of a disease. It helps patients learn pain-reducing or coping methods and decrease pain during physical therapy to enhance healing. The results can then improve the quality of life for those suffering and their families, decrease drug dependency, and reduce medical bills by shortening hospital stays or having fewer visits.

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