I am sitting on a deserted beach in Tasmania, listening to the gently lapping waves. All my worries fade in just 3 minutes.
While on my couch, I am touring the famous sites of London. Have I been on vacation? I feel as if I have.
I am by a creek in Bavaria. Water gently crashes against the rocks. Leaves fall to the ground. In four minutes, I am in state of joy.
Underwater with a school of dolphins, twisting my head to get the best views as they swim above me and all around, I forget anything that bothers me, physical or mental.
How can I be in so many places? I am using a virtual reality program designed to relieve chronic pain. I love it. I look forward to doing it every day.
Later, when I am out and about, a sound I heard during my VR sessions, perhaps the swaying of a tree, makes my body relax without effort.
The AppliedVR headset I am using looks like a blacked-out snorkeling mask. It came with a warning not to expose it to direct sunlight, and to take great care not to scratch the lenses. The company loaned me the device to try at no cost and with no stipulations for this review.
Virtual reality (VR) had its start as entertainment in video gaming. Headsets have speakers or earphones, and are usually connected to a joystick or hand controller. When the user moves their head, tracking software shifts the images, providing an immersive experience into a full 360-degree view of a 3D world.
Besides gaming, VR has a growing number of practical uses. VR technology is used to teach dangerous jobs like piloting or to give doctors simulated practice at surgery. The U.S. military uses VR to train soldiers to fight and build mental resilience for battle. Ford employees use VR to inspect and look for problems in virtual automobiles before they are even manufactured. Architects and engineers use it to evaluate and find problems in their design work.
In a medical setting, VR therapy was first used in caring for patients who suffered burn wounds, which can be so painful that even opioids can be insufficient. A study found that VR, when coupled with pain medication, provided burn patients with significant relief.
More Than Just Distraction
How does VR make such a difference in pain?
“The most acceptable theory is the Gate theory of attention. It postulates that VR reduces the perception of pain by absorbing and diverting attention away from pain,” says Dr. Medhat Mikhael, a pain management specialist.
But there’s more to it. Dr. Brennan Spiegel, director of Cedars-Sinai’s Health Service Research, completed a VR study on 120 hospitalized patients in 2019, which showed that VR significantly reduces pain. It was most effective for severe pain.
“Virtual reality is a mind-body treatment that is based in real science. 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,” Spiegel said.
Short-term, acute pain is a different beast than chronic pain. Only a few studies have been done using VR to treat chronic pain, which can overwhelm the nervous system, making the body even more sensitive to and aware of pain. This cycle can become so entrenched it can cause the body to interpret benign stimuli, such as the light brush of fabric against skin, as painful.
Early studies on VR for chronic pain are promising. In a study published in 2016, chronic pain patients had an average 60% reduction in pain from VR treatment. A third of the participants experienced total pain relief while doing VR sessions. They had a wide variety of conditions, such as spine pain, hip pain, myalgia, connective tissue disease, interstitial cystitis, chest pain, shoulder pain, abdominal pain and neuropathy.
Another study recently found that VR reduces pain and improves mood and sleep in people living with fibromyalgia or chronic lower back pain.
Pain Drifts Away
I’ve had a lifetime of chronic pain from the collagen disease, Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. My body is very weak and flimsy. Having chronic pain and disability sometimes makes me feel resentful and betrayed by my own body.
In one VR session, I stare into the heavens. I am shown a projection of a human body and nervous system. A kind, encouraging woman explains simply and compassionately the phenomenon of pain. I hate my body less in two minutes.
Ordinarily, I would never play a video game. I don’t like cartoons. Meditating makes me anxious. I find it difficult to even lose myself watching a movie. I would not have thought I would respond well to virtual reality. But from the first brief session, I did.
I learned how to calm and balance my nervous system in an animated forest. Gently encouraged to breathe in time with a giant whimsical tree, the ground and surrounding plants change, becoming ever more colorful each time I exhale. The loving woman tells me I have changed myself and the outside world. I have to agree.
Some sessions are games that teach me to redirect my attention away from pain. In a cartoon winter wonderland, I shoot snowballs at happy teddy bears, who giggle when I hit them. I have made the teddy bears and myself happy.
In others programs, I swim with jellyfish. Or sunbathe on a beach in Australia. Or sit by a stream in the snowfall. You can watch a sample of these programs below.
The benefits of VR therapy continued for me after the sessions ended. When pain or panic about pain began to set in, I found it drifts away rather than latching onto me like it used to.
After a couple weeks of VR, during a visit to physical therapist, I noticed I was no longer afraid of her touching my neck and back, and actually enjoyed it.
VR reminds me of times in my life when I was fully engaged in the moment and overwhelmed by wonder or beauty. As a child swimming in the ocean, once I was surrounded by dolphins. They clicked and called to each other. I immediately forgot how cold I was and how my wet-suit was cutting off the circulation in my hands.
VR took me back to other transcendent moments of my life, like playing in an orchestra, surrounded by instruments producing layers of organized sound. Standing in front of Van Gogh’s Bedroom. A ride at Disneyland. Falling in love.
My only criticism of VR is the weight of the headset. The device is heavy and could be difficult for someone with neck or head pain to tolerate.
AppliedVR’s technology is being used in hundreds of hospitals, but it is not yet available for home use. The company hopes for a broader launch in 2021, but getting insurance coverage will be key.
“We know that living with and managing chronic pain can be a debilitating and costly challenge that is only exacerbated by the COVID crisis. As such, we are focused on achieving our vision of delivering safe and effective VR therapeutics into the home where the need for non-opioid chronic pain treatment options is greatest,” says AppliedVR CEO Matthew Stoudt.
“We are now focused on partnering with payers to demonstrate how our chronic pain VR therapeutic improves health outcomes, reduces costs and empowers patients to lead their best lives. This is the key to making VR a reimbursable standard of care for pain management.”
In addition to pain, VR therapy is also being used to relax people going through dental procedures, chemotherapy, physical rehabilitation, phobias, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
You cannot talk your brain out of perceiving pain, but with VR it finds other, better things to do than just focus on pain. Cognitive behavioral therapy and self-soothing techniques do that too, but VR disengaged my brain from the pain perception cycle at a much deeper level, just as pain once hijacked my thoughts and attention.
By Madora Pennington, PNN Columnist