Virtual reality treatments can be used to deliver the same relief that people suffering from chronic pain across America get from intravenous opioids. A Cedars-Sinai researcher and gastroenterologist Brennan Spiegel has been a running VR treatment program since 2015 and his work could have considerable implications for the healthcare industry in the US where millions are hooked on painkillers. Perhaps, virtual reality treatment therapies may, in the future, replace our reliance on painkillers.

Spiegel’s program is one of the largest academic medical initiatives that studies the use of VR in health therapy. The program began in 2015 and has so far received funding of $1 million from an investment banker who is on the facility’s board.

Image NYT
Image NYT

Chronic pain is a major health challenge in the U.S. It is defined as pain that has lasted for at least three months. It is currently one of the leading causes of long-term disability across the world. Some 50 million Americans are living with chronic pain. Part of this has been the fact that existing painkillers are becoming inadequate which has led physicians to explore nonpharmacological therapies in managing chronic pain rather than over-relying on opioids and other pain relief drugs. In this, VR treatment therapies can prove opportune for the health industry.

Spiegel’s virtual reality treatment therapy immerses patients in stimulating environments such as a virtual beach landscape where the patient can perform various relaxation and breathing exercises. As a result, the patient’s heart slows, their pupils become smaller, they relax and the pain subsides following the virtual reality experience.

A patient at Spiegel’s facility, Julia Monterroso reported the virtual reality breathing exercise was more relaxing compared to other conventional breathing exercises. In the experience, Julia was even able to swap experiences and become a doctor inside VR where she was guided by a virtual assistant to treat a patient suffering from chronic abdominal pain where she learned the processes of the body.

In his book VRx: How Virtual Therapeutics Will Revolutionize Medicine, Brennan Spiegel wrote that virtual reality can uniquely convey the feeling of just being there, no matter where “there” might be.

Spiegel writes that the revolutionary potential of virtual reality health therapy comes out of its ability to compel one’s brain and body to react to a different reality (that is not a physical reality). In the VR environment, the person uses about 50% of their brain for visual processes in the computer-generated world of VR. Spiegel says that when one bombards “the eyes with spectacular and dynamic visions”, what happens is that the “three billion neuronal firings per second” will be ricocheting through half the user’s brain so as to process the large load of visual data. Spiegel’s patient Julia felt her pain disappear and as Spiegel describes it, the experience was as if she had taken a hallucinogen.

Through the VR therapy, Julia also got some insights on how she can change her life. Spiegel says that the processes inside Julia’s brain were “on fire” during the VR therapy. The actual effects of virtual reality on chronic pain are not yet fully understood. In Spiegel’s case, what matters is the patient outcome and whether the VR therapy actually helps relieve chronic pain.

You can read the full report by Helen Ouyang on the use of VR to relieve chronic pain in the New York Times. Ouyang is a physician and associate professor at Columbia University. In the report, she provides a detailed description of the challenge of chronic pain, pain therapy, and the resulting opiate crisis in the U.S.  The report also highlights developments and studies on VR therapies and how these could be used to prevent substance abuse. She also visited AppliedVR, which developed a VR app that is used to treat pain and to also help with painkiller addiction.

AppliedVR is currently involved with over 200 healthcare providers and has worked with EaseVRx in the last 7 years. AppliedVR got $29 million in investment funding in 2021. The startup says over 60,000 patients have so far benefitted from VR therapy. The use FDA also issued a special approval of its VR therapy after a successful control trial and EaseVRx can thus be used in the treatment of chronic back pain and fibromyalgia (muscular rheumatism).

Source: New York Times

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