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How virtual reality provides non-opioid pain relief in the hospital

January 4, 2018

    What do snowmen and penguins have to do with non-opioid pain relief? They show the potential for virtual reality in clinical care.

    Here's how: War veterans enrolled in a pain management study at the University of Washington Harborview Burn Center had half their burn wounds dressed while taking morphine, and half while playing a virtual reality (VR) game, called SnowWorld. In the game, the veterans slid down an icy canyon and hurled snowballs at snowmen and penguins through using a VR headset and a joystick. And the effect was impressive: Simply using the VR during their wound care lowered their perception of pain by over 54%, a reduction far above the relief they had felt from receiving morphine.

    The study's results, published in 2011, have in part paved the way for virtual reality's emerging use today in medical settings—particularly for pain management. Despite the fact that VR gained initial popularity for entertainment purposes only, it has proven to aid the medical community in treating a widening array of patients, from children undergoing a simple blood draw to bedbound inpatients. Leading hospitals such as Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Lucile Packard Children's Hospital at Stanford, New-York Presbyterian, and Boston Children's Hospital have all been piloting the technology.

    While VR technology's use in medicine is still relatively new, many predict it could take off in the wake of the opioid epidemic. Indeed, given that more than 100 million Americans experience chronic pain, and payers and providers alike desire to shift away from prescribing opioids, the need for alternative pain management techniques is only building.

    Here are three key factors that are increasing demand for VR in hospital care, which make VR a clinical technology to watch.

    1. Demand for non-opioid pain management in the hospital setting is growing

    With opioids claiming the lives of nearly 100 Americans every day, medical authorities—among them, the CDC—are casting a renewed focus on the hospital's role in offering pain management that is safer and more effective than opioids.

    Therefore, hospitals and health systems such as Anne Arundel Medical Center have committed to decreasing the amount of opioids prescribed at their institution. Since VR actually lowers the amount of pain registered in patient's brain (some studies have found up to 50% less activation of pain-based neural circuits), it has the potential to decrease the demand for opioids during and following a hospital visit.

    2. Clinical studies have reliably proven positive results

    The number of studies exploring the different uses of virtual reality for pain management has grown substantially in the last 10 years, and doubled in number between 2010 and 2011 alone. In these studies, VR has been found to be particularly effective for chemotherapy patients, physical therapy after trauma, and for pediatric populations. Even more promising, new trials have explored pain management for patients with chronic pain—with results that could prove VR's applicability to an even broader array of patients.

    3. The cost of VR equipment has decreased

    While VR headsets used to cost more than $35,000, prices have lowered in the last year to about $100 to $600 per headset (or even $5, as is the case for Google Cardboard). This affordable price point and the equipment's durable and reusable nature has increased the financial viability of VR for many hospitals. If the prices of these new devices continue to drop, or if insurers begin to reimburse for pain management through VR, more hospitals may be willing to adopt the technology.


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