Because of the growing opioid epidemic in the country, hospitals are being tasked to find unique ways to relieve patients’ pain, instead of relying on drugs. While some facilities are focusing on nonopioid painkillers and physical therapy for pain relief, others are looking to an alternate reality. 

According to an article in Bloomberg, the latest trend for hospitals and pain relief is the use of virtual reality (VR) headsets to help patients divert their focus from their pain.

How it works

By immersing patients in a virtual world, VR can overload the circuits in a patient’s brain and limit its capacity to process the sensation of pain. That, combined with the distraction of a game, setting or activity projected through the headset, helps patients feel better without the need for opioids.

Similar to meditation, VR can be used as a tactic to calm the body’s nervous system, according to Beth Darnall, a clinical associate professor from Stanford Health Care who’s quoted in the Bloomberg piece.

Research has shown that VR has a positive impact on patients’ brains when used for pain relief. MRI images taken after patients used VR equipment showed they experienced the sensation of pain less often.

In the past, the cost of VR technology was prohibitive. But prices have fallen with time, and hardware has become more readily available. In fact, the headset and required software currently costs around $2,000, which pales in comparison to keeping patients in the hospital for an extra day or two, hooked up to a morphine drip.

Because of this, hospitals have started investing in VR headsets and equipment for patients to use. Facilities are testing the use of VR to help relieve everything from pain to depression, and institutions such as Shriners Hospital for Children and Cedars-Sinai Medical Center have jumped on the bandwagon.

Big picture for VR tech

More research is being planned into the effectiveness of VR equipment for relieving chronic pain. However, anecdotal evidence shows it’s helped several patients get relief from severe acute pain. One woman discussed in the Bloomberg article was so impressed by how well VR helped her pain in the hospital, she immediately purchased a personal set of the equipment for use after discharge.

There are other limitations besides a lack of research. Older patients may not be as receptive to the use of VR for pain relief as younger patients, and the effects may not be sustainable unless patients decide to purchase VR equipment for their homes. In addition, the relief patients experience may be based on how immersed they are in the virtual world, and if VR isn’t interesting or stimulating enough for them, the effects may be less drastic.

But initial results do look promising. That means VR could very well be a tool that hospitals can incorporate into their pain management programs to help patients feel more comfortable without running the risk of opioid addiction.

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