Scientists are testing virtual reality for pain relief

Earlier this month, scientists published a landmark study in the Journal of Medical Internet Research discussing the effectiveness of virtual reality (VR) as a pain relief tool.

The study looked at pain relief in patients undergoing a bone marrow biopsy, a procedure that is notoriously painful and uncomfortable. In the study, participants were randomly assigned to one of two pain control methods. The first was the traditional method using a mixture of nitrous oxide and oxygen, while the second method involved using a VR headset. Specifically for the VR option, patients could choose from four imaginary 3-dimensional VR environments to interact with during the procedure, including “Nohara (dreamy land walk), Kaitei (seabed exploration), Uchuu (space walk ) , and Mori (dream-like forest walk). Participants wore headphones for full immersion, as the “environments were designed to induce a state of relaxation and mild sedation through slow passive contemplative exploration without inducing a hypnotic state.”

The results were pretty profound. The researchers found that patients did not perceive a significant difference in pain intensity between the traditional pain management method and the VR treatment option. In addition, anxiety scores and blood pressure did not differ significantly between the two cohorts. Most importantly, the scientists found the study incredibly useful as it showed that not only was the VR-based pain relief method well tolerated, but also that the patients and doctors who used the VR method were extremely satisfied.

The applications of this technology are incredibly powerful. The global pain crisis is one of the most important and devastating situations happening in the healthcare industry right now. In fact, “according to an estimate by the Institute of Medicine, more than 100 million Americans struggle with chronic pain, resulting in up to $635 billion in annual treatment costs and lost productivity.”

Chronic pain is so prevalent that in the United States alone, the pain management market has been estimated at nearly $6.75 billion in 2021 and is expected to grow to $12.55 billion by 2028.

Although VR technology is still in its infancy, it has come a long way in terms of the value it can offer. Many tech giants see increasing uses for this hardware and continue to invest in it. One of the most prominent examples is Meta’s VR products, which are being developed for use in multiple applications, from advanced gaming to realistic immersion, and even for business and professional use. The wide range of opportunities to collaborate, educate, and participate in full immersion with Meta’s hardware makes it a promising medium to integrate potential pain relief modalities in the future.

Similarly, Microsoft’s incredible advances with HoloLens are a game changer when it comes to virtual and augmented reality. The company has already introduced the product in the fields of manufacturing, engineering and education. In terms of healthcare, HoloLens is being tested for applications in classrooms, virtual correspondence, and even direct patient care. Given the already immense advances in the healthcare sector, Hololens is also a natural fit to further explore new modalities of pain management.

Indeed, more research is needed and many more such studies need to be conducted. However, with the integration of the right technology and the appropriate guardrails that prioritize patient safety, the above idea is a promising attempt to help solve one of the most important problems in healthcare.

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