Could VR Solve the Opioid Epidemic?

Thursday, 02 November 2017 - 12:20PM
Virtual Reality
Thursday, 02 November 2017 - 12:20PM
Could VR Solve the Opioid Epidemic?
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Image Credit: YouTube
Some of the greatest technological breakthroughs of all time were discovered by accident. 

As humans, we dream, build, invent, and destroy - but true innovation, that otherworldly spark of inspiration, often requires us to fail, to snake off from our original plans in unexpected ways in order to unlock the kind of potential that can change the course of history.

Virtual reality gaming may not have taken off the way many expected it to since debuting in earnest earlier this year, but today scientists are finding a variety of exciting new uses for the technology in other fields that promise to expand its impact on humanity far beyond the gaming community.

Virtual reality learning is common, as is its efficacy in design and architecture work, but what's really fascinating is how, quietly, without fanfare, VR is being used to revolutionize the medical industry.

Around the world, many hospitals are embracing VR as a form of treatment for many different afflictions, both mental and physical, in an effort to help patients to develop solid coping methods for periods of intense stress and discomfort.

It's believed - and the results seem to back this up - that VR may be more effective than traditional painkillers in helping to treat chronic pain, a condition that's affecting more and more people every year. (A 2015 study found that more than 1 in 3 Americans were prescribed opioids to treat chronic pain.)

But there's an even more significant breakthrough that VR represents for healthcare even beyond its high percentage of effectiveness.

Virtual reality doesn't come with the negative side effects of opioid treatment of pain, such as the danger of dependency and addiction that many patients develop as a result of extended periods of reliance on traditional pain medication.

VR has been used in pain treatment for nearly two decades at this point. Back in the very early days of the technology, a program called SnowWorld was used to help burn victims with the horrendously painful experience of having their bandages changed on a daily basis. The program, which involved patients flinging snowballs in a frozen wonderland, was designed to help patients perform the movements necessary to get their bandages removed and reapplied while distracting them from the experience they were suffering through.

According to Hunter Hoffman, the expert behind this early treatment:

Opening quote
"Acute pain is a perfect match for VR. You only need it for 20 minutes and it has drastic effects. "If you say, 'go home and meditate,' not many patients will follow through. But if you give them a VR system and say 'go into this ancient world and meditate with monks,' they're more likely to actually do it."
Closing quote

As technology has developed, the wide range of uses for VR in pain treatment has grown exponentially.

Medical professionals are now able to prescribe specific experiences to their patients in order to meet their particular needs.

The distraction of the VR environment allows patients' brains to filter out the pain messages that they're receiving, helping to better control the discomfort caused by chronic pain.

What's particularly useful about this treatment is that it doesn't involve feeding patients chemicals that alter their brain chemistry - instead, the brain is taught to regulate itself better, preventing the development of a traditional dependency.

Much of what doctors are achieving with VR comes not from disguising the pain, but teaching patients coping methods that can be used even outside of VR to manage their pain.

In the words of AppliedVR president Josh Sackman:

Opening quote
"We're trying to figure out how to prescribe the right experience to the right person based on their needs and their interests. But the end goal is to teach skills using technology, not to depend on it for the relief itself."
Closing quote

There's still a long way to go before VR technology becomes a widespread, commonplace pain-relief treatment, but progress is being made rapidly.

In years to come, VR meditative experiences may help the majority of chronic-pain patients to deal with their symptoms without the need for potentially addictive opioids.
Virtual Reality
How VR Could Solve the Opioid Epidemic