December 6, 2022

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Virtual Reality Device Helps Ease Chronic Pain

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Experts say a new virtual reality device can help people understand and ease their chronic pain. David Espejo/Getty Images
  • It’s estimated that chronic pain affects 50 million U.S. adults.
  • Treatments, including medications and cognitive behavioral therapy, are used to ease the pain.
  • Federal regulators have now approved a virtual reality device that in a recent clinical study was effective in reducing chronic pain.
  • The EaseVRx device works by immersing users into a 3D world.

About 50 million adults in the United States live with chronic pain.

Help, however, may be on the way.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved a breakthrough device that could improve the daily lives of people with chronic pain.

The EaseVRx is a virtual reality (VR) headset that uses techniques like cognitive behavioral therapy to help with pain reduction in adults.

“The inspiration behind the EaseVRx was to create a standardized, standalone, high quality behavioral intervention where people could acquire a critical skills set that has been shown through various different types of treatment modalities to both reduce pain and its impacts. But now they can receive it on demand in the comfort of their own home and in doing so, transcending so many barriers to effective pain care,” said Beth Darnall, PhD, the director of the Stanford Pain Relief Innovations Lab in California as well as the chief science adviser and co-creator of the EaseVRx.

“Individuals turn on the headset and they’re in an immersive 3D world where they can see a new environment around them and be directed to interact within the context of that environment to learn various information such as the role of pain in the brain, how pain exists in the central nervous system, and what can be done to soothe or calm one’s nervous system within the context of pain,” Darnall told Healthline.

The VR device takes users through a treatment program of 56 sessions done daily over an 8-week period.

The FDA reported that in a clinical study of the device, 66 percent of those who used EaseVRx reported a higher than 30 percent reduction in their pain, compared with 41 percent of other participants who didn’t use the device.

About 46 percent of those who used the device reported a greater than 50 percent reduction in their pain.

“It’s really exciting. It is a breakthrough device, it’s also a breakthrough in terms of how we’re conceptualizing pain and pain treatment,” Darnall said.

“It’s not to say it will obviate the need for medication or other interventions, but it can nicely work alongside any other medical treatment that a physician or clinician will determine to be appropriate for any patient,” she added.

Lora L. Black, PhD, MPH, a licensed psychologist and assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Kansas Health System, said the device could be useful in improving access to treatments.

“This appears to be a good use of technology to enhance self-regulatory techniques that have been shown to be helpful for chronic pain in multiple studies,” she told Healthline.

“There is also research showing that VR technology can increase adherence to other treatments, such as exercise, so use of similar technology may be useful in increasing adherence to the self-regulatory techniques as well,” she added.

“A device like this may help to reduce access barriers many patients experience when trying to find psychologists trained in pain-focused psychotherapy,” Black noted. “Such a device may also serve as a helpful supplement to those already engaged in psychological treatment for chronic pain.”

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a psychological treatment that can be used in a variety of conditions to improve daily function and quality of life.

CBT works by helping you change patterns of thinking and develop effective ways to cope.

It can be used in the treatment of pain to change how people feel and experience pain.

“The medical definition of pain is that it’s both a physical and an emotional response, so the brain responsibility in that is on both sides. The brain processes the physical aspects of pain and brings them to our attention, and it’s also the center for the emotional aspects of pain. CBT is a method of using the brain’s ability to influence those things to change the pain experience,” Dr. Matthew Smuck, chief of physical medicine & rehabilitation at Stanford Health Care, told Healthline.

Dr. Gene Tekmyster, a physical medicine and rehabilitation physician at Keck Medicine of USC, said that pain can change the way people think.

“Pain is multifactorial. There is an incredibly large psychological component. There are so many things involved in people feeling pain and how much they feel pain,” Tekmyster told Healthline.

“Because pain changes your psychology, your stress levels, and actually changes your behaviors, not only do you have to change how people perceive the pain but also how it affects them and how they perceive it affects them,” he said.

“It’s how we deal with pain that CBT helps to control, not really controlling pain in and of itself,” he added.

Darnall said the VR device is one more addition to the treatment options available to treat chronic pain. Other options include physical therapy, exercise, yoga, and acupuncture.

Medications may also be used, but Smuck said they’re often not useful for the long-term management of chronic pain.

“Studies have shown they can be useful most often in the short term, but very few studies show that medications are useful for managing chronic pain in the long term and that’s particularly true for medications that have more risk, like opioids,” he said.

“The amount of benefit that is derived from opioids is small. It’s really not any better than what you can get from CBT. Those benefits tend to be short lived because of the way the body responds to opioids. There’s a substantial amount of risk to taking opioids, including addiction, overdose, and death,” he added.

Darnall is hopeful the VR device will make lower risk treatment options such as CBT more easily accessible to the public.

“Some people of course definitely need pain medication and we never want there to be barriers to a particular treatment that a person may need,” she said. “However, it is well appreciated and has been stated for chronic low back pain but also chronic pain generally, we want to apply lowest risk treatments first.”

“In this case, we are giving people that option, access to home-based, on-demand pain care,” she said.

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