December 18, 2021

Can Virtual Reality Help with Pain Management?

Pain and Therapy published a new study on combining virtual reality and behavioral health to promote pain resiliency, reigniting the discussion on the potential use of virtual reality (VR) to manage pain.

A total of 36 individuals with acute or chronic work-related injuries that severely limited their daily activities and quality of life were included in a 90-day Harvard MedTech Vx Pain Relief Program. The program consisted of home-based VR therapy sessions and tailored behavioral therapy that was conducted by phone consultations.

For the VR therapy, patients were instructed to use a special VR headset once or twice a day for 45 minutes for 12 weeks. Self-reported pain scores were measured, along with changes in opioid therapy, psychological awareness/perception of pain, sleep improvement, behavioral and physical, and overall improvement.

As for demographics, the average age was 45, with age ranging from 20-65. Type of injury varied among individuals.

Overall, patients experienced a substantial immediate and legacy pain relief, reporting an average 40% reduction in pain while utilizing the program. At the start of the study, patients typically experienced pain reduction for 1.9 hours after their sessions, but upon study completion, patients averaged 2.8 hours of pain reduction.

Furthermore, patients spent less overall time thinking about their pain. Average time spent thinking about pain fell from an average of 9.78 hours a week at the start of therapy to an average of 2.76 hours a week at the end of the study – a 72% reduction. Reduction in time was found to improve with each successive week of therapy.

Approximately 69% of patients reported either a decrease in opioid use or complete cessation after VR therapy, with only 6% of patients reporting increased opioid use.

Overall, patients experienced a 115% increase in the duration of their sleep and 280% increase in the subjective quality of their sleep after using virtual reality therapy. Importantly, patients reported an 85% reduction in sleep interruptions. For those patients that experienced sleep interruptions, however, 92% were able to fall back asleep more quickly after enrolling in the 12-week program.

In regard to physical and mental health, by the end of the study patients reported:

  • A 470% increase in their ability to focus and complete tasks
  • A 70% reduction in anxiety related to pain
  • A near 300% increase in the duration of time physical activities could be performed
  • A seven-times increase in the number of physical and social activities performed
  • An 85% decrease in forgetfulness
  • A 57% decrease in fatigue

Overall, the study bodes well for the use of VR therapy for pain management, but the study authors recognize that the study comes with many limitations, expressing their hope that more research in this field continues.

At this time, VR devices in workers’ comp are still considered investigational, but the results of this study create a cautious optimism that VR therapy could become an effective new modality to be utilized in workers’ comp.

Healthesystems has previously reported on VR’s potential applications for reducing pain, combating drug addiction, and improving physical rehabilitation. Furthermore, Healthe’s Director of Product Management, Tate Rice, previously spoke to IAIABC regarding the developing use of VR and video games in physical therapy.

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