Can virtual reality really help manage pain?

Imagine you are a patient, going into hospital for surgery. You’ve been in chronic pain for a long time, and it’s turned out you need a knee replacement. Perfectly routine surgery, but it does come with a long recovery time and some significant pain and discomfort along the way. This would usually be handled with painkillers, physiotherapy and lots of movement (even though that can be very painful).

Man in VR talking to therapist


It’s not a nice thing to think about, but people go through it every day. However now, thanks to the advent of virtual reality (VR), patients with acute or chronic pain issues could find themselves less reliant on opioids for relief, and instead, enter a VR world.

VR as a tool for pain management is a relatively new concept, yet already it’s showing some promising results. By harnessing this technology, doctors could easily address and improve their approach to pain management across the board, including:

  • Prevention
  • Improved pain management
  • Improved training
  • Improved adherence
  • Telemedicine

But how does it work, and how realistic is VR as a method of pain management?

The Psychology Of Pain

When you feel pain in your body, it sets off a chain reaction. The part of your body that’s been hurt sends electronic impulses up to your brain via nerve fibres and nociceptors, which then interprets them as pain and sends a return signal to the limb.

Sharp pain impulses travel faster than slower pain impulses. So, for example, if you stub your toe or prick your finger on something sharp, your brain will register it quickly through the nerve fibres. A dull, throbbing pain like a chronic backache, on the other hand, will take longer, because it has to travel through a web of affected neural fibres before reaching your brain. This is an incredibly basic version of the process (you can read that in more detail here), but it illustrates our point nicely.

Awareness exists surrounding the idea that the epicentre of all things pain is actually the brain. This means that the way we experience pain can be psychologically manipulated in any way we choose. For example, if you are anticipating something painful happening, you can often make the pain worse for yourself. Whereas, if you distract yourself, you can forget the pain for a little while. Emotions and mental state play a key part in how we sense and experience pain, as well as the way we handle and recover from it.

Pain management is always a challenge in medicine. But recently, VR has been used as a way to divert the brain’s pathways and change what we think we’re experiencing. This can have a huge impact on how we feel and manage pain.

The Alternative To Opioids For Short Term, Acute Pain

While the first port of call for many people when they feel pain is some form of drug-based treatment, there have actually been a huge number of pain control techniques that have nothing to do with opioids or medication. A few examples include:

  • Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)
  • Biofeedback
  • Hypnosis
  • Massage
  • Chiropractic care

All of these methods have proven effective in managing and controlling pain in acute instances. VR adds to that list by tricking the brain’s neural pathways into believing an alternative scenario is in fact, reality. This diverts the sensory pain messages and instead provides relief from acute pain.

The research into this area has been particularly positive in the management of pain in burn patients and for needle-related pain. For example, the VR programme Snow World has been proven to be more effective than opioids in treating pain for severe burns. In this example, patients with serious burns often have to undergo dressing changes and wound cleanings, which can be excruciatingly painful.

Snow World features snowy scenes and a game involving throwing snowballs woolly mammoths, penguins and even flying fish. Players don’t have to move their bodies to play (which would increase pain) – rather, they control the game with slight head tilts and single button presses.

With the combination of escapism and the mental relation to the cold (as the antithesis of fire), Snow World has proven again and again that VR can be successful in reducing and managing acute pain. At Orbital Media, we are working on similar studies for both acute and chronic pain, to see how VR can be used as a tool to manage pain.

Chronic Pain Management

Of course, we don’t just experience acute pain. Chronic pain is also a serious problem and can be more difficult to manage in many ways. For example, if a patient has an incurable condition that causes inflammation and pain in their joints (like arthritis), then the only option becomes to manage the pain for as long as possible. But many people don’t like the idea of being on medication for the rest of their lives – particularly opioid medications, which can easily cause addiction and have other unpleasant side effects. So there needs to be an alternative to manage daily, ongoing pain.

When combined with other treatments like biofeedback, studies have shown that VR can provide an effective method for managing chronic pain. For example, research by Samsung revealed that patients who had suffered workplace injuries that left them in chronic pain experienced a 52% decrease in pain using VR based treatments.

Research has been conducted into patients with complex regional pain syndrome (which is notoriously difficult to treat) showing a 50% decrease in pain using VR therapies.

There have also been studies on both adults and children receiving chemotherapy for various cancers. While recognising the drawbacks of using VR ー in the adult study researchers stated that “clinicians should not assume that use of VR will improve chemotherapy-related symptoms” ー the results showed support for VR.

Using VR for chronic pain management not only means that patients experience a better quality of life, without the side effects of medication but it also significantly reduces the risk of them developing an opioid problem.

While it’s early days yet, at Orbital Media, our results into how VR can be used as a tool to manage both acute and chronic pain are looking promising. We have every confidence that the technology will continue to improve the lives of people in pain.

The Other Side Of The Coin

Of course, there is the other side of the argument – the one that says VR can’t really help with pain management, especially in acute physical cases. Opioids may not have completely solved the issue of pain management, but they have proven largely effective in allowing patients to return to their normal lives. VR, on the other hand, has had some misses in this area, and the tendency to induce motion sickness (also known as VR sickness) in around 25% of people doesn’t help it’s standing. While there is work going on to reduce the things that cause VR sickness, it still represents a major hurdle that needs to be overcome before the real impact of VR on pain can be assessed.

At Orbital Media, we’re working with numerous healthcare organisations to develop VR programmes and games that will help patients manage their pain more effectively. As the medical world starts to embrace new and exciting technologies, we believe treatments will be discovered in the most unlikely places. In the future, VR could prove an invaluable tool, both in the treatment of acute pain and the management of long-term chronic pain conditions.

The key is to find the balance between traditional pain management techniques, such as drugs and physiotherapy, and the mental trickery of VR pain management. When done right, this could create the solution we need for pain problems in the UK and beyond. If you’d like to know more about VR and its uses in pain management, get in touch with the team at Orbital Media today.