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Virtual reality as an alternative to front-line pain treatment?

With health care professionals reporting an 86% reduction in face-to-face consultations due to Covid-19, increasing numbers of GPs are turning to virtual reality as a form of at-home therapy.

You may not have heard of the Oculus Quest or the HTC Vive, but if you suffer from chronic pain and health anxiety, these VR headsets could provide some much-needed respite from your symptoms.

Primarily used for video gaming, VR is a computer-generated experience that enables users to enter an immersive artificial environment via a headset, screen or projection. The user is encouraged to manipulate and interact with the environment by moving their body and using hand-held controllers.

Researchers began to explore the use of 3D digital technology as a therapy for pain in the 1990s, however - laden with bulky equipment and high costs - the option was not viable. Fast forward 30 years and patients are being offered a headset instead of high dosage pain relief medications and even anaesthetic.

Due to its versatility, therapeutic virtual reality has been proven to aid both acute and chronic pain. Walkthroughs and experiences can be adapted for individual patients; while some might benefit from games that encourage slow movement and problem solving, others benefit from stress-reducing virtual run-throughs of therapies that might be causing apprehension.

In 2019, Cedars Siani, a non-profit academically driven community hospital in Los Angeles, reported a three point decrease in the scale of 0-10 pain identifier when patients received virtual reality treatment.

Brennan Spiegel, director of Health Service Research at the centre explains: "Virtual reality is a mind-body treatment that is based in real science,” he continues, “It does more than just distract the mind from pain, but also helps to block pain signals from reaching the brain, offering a drug-free supplement to traditional pain management."

An article published by Harvard Review of Psychiatry reported that VR’s ability to provide a cognitive distraction to those with chronic illnesses enabled both an improvement in reported pain levels and mental well-being, as well as significantly reduced activity in regions of the brain related to both sensory and emotional pain processing.

Those living with fibromyalgia have been spotlighted as key beneficiaries from virtual reality walkthroughs as they enable activity and movement management, and encourage an acknowledgement of personal mindfulness, while also educating the user on personal pain management techniques.

With Covid-19 increasing the reliance on home-based digital health programmes for those seeking repeat face-to-face treatment, companies such as VRHealth are reporting increased usage of their remote distraction therapy.

First introduced in January of this year, VRHealth apps are available for physicians, patients and caregivers to download via Oculus. In doing so, patients are granted access to a library of 360° environment whilst their physicians have real time access to the generated healthcare data.

OxfordVR is a tech company at the forefront of digital healthcare development in the UK. In March, the company’s social engagement programme is the first VR therapy to become available on the NHS.

Largely tailored to aid in cognitive behavioural therapy techniques, OxfordVR offers 30-minute sessions. Users are guided through everyday environments with their virtual assistant and are encouraged to repeatedly encounter problematic situations to overcome anxieties and boost their confidence when faced with these experiences in the real world.

The question is: given the growing body of evidence into its benefits, would you choose VR therapy over more standard forms of treatment?




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