There’s nothing worse than when a new technology becomes swept up in a flood of hype that sees its buzzwords used in all sorts of inappropriate ways. Remember when everything from toothpaste to shoes somehow had the word “nanotechnology” shoehorned somewhere into their product descriptions? Simply because the greater public had become aware of the scientific excitement around nanotechnology, adding it to your product, despite tenuous links to the field, would make it sound futuristic.
Well, I hate to say it but VR is starting to pick up a little of that unwelcome tendency. It’s being applied to all sorts of areas where it really shouldn’t be. The same thing is happening to artificial intelligence, with all sorts of applications and devices claiming to be “AI-powered”. This is why you’d be right to take with a grain of salt the claim that VR is an effective treatment for pain. And yet, here we are with serious evidence that virtual reality can in fact treat pain. How is this even possible?
What is Pain?
To understand how it can even be possible, in principle, for pain to be affected by something like VR, it’s important to understand what pain actually is. Pain is a built-in, evolved warning system that lets you know something’s not right with your body. Whether you step on a tack or have something wrong internally, an aching or stabbing sensation let’s you know about it.
Pain is delivered as a signal from your sense organs, transported by nerves and reaching the pain center of your brain. There it is interpreted and you then get a subjective experience of that signal. Pain medication works by putting a block somewhere along that delivery line. When the doctor applies a numbing agent to your skin before removing a mole, he’s preventing the pain sensors in your skin from reporting the damage in the first place. When you drink certain pain killers, they reduce how well those nerves function, lessening the intensity of the feeling. Strong painkillers such as opioids bind to pain receptors in the brain for a powerful effect that stops you from experiencing the sensation of pain even if the signal makes it all the way to your brain.
That’s the (rather broad) mechanical description of pain. It’s not exactly inclusive, but you get the general idea. The thing is, despite all the physical mechanisms of pain, in the end it is still a subjective mental process that makes up the experience of pain. This is why some people can feel chronic pain, pain that doesn’t go away no matter what medications you take, as a psychological problem. It’s also why some people are more resilient to pain than others. They habituate to it; they can override it mentally and otherwise deal with levels of pain or discomfort that would reduce a crybaby like me to a blubbering mess.
Hypnotherapy too, can be used to reduce the amount of pain a person feels. So it should be clear that it’s not only by using chemical agents that we can reduce how much pain a person experiences. That’s where VR comes in.
VR at the Dentist
I first became aware of this innovative use of VR when I read an article about how dentists were using VR to reduce pain as part of a study. In total, 80 people who needed a cavity fixed or a tooth yanked out took part in the study. These two types of procedures were split into separate groups and given one of two VR experiences. They could explore the coast or explore a city. A very unlucky third group got nothing at all! Ouch. Those who experienced the coastal exploration reported the most reduction in pain compared to both of the other groups.
So promising is the prospect of VR pain reduction, especially in this era of opioid addiction, that one Matthew Stoudt launched an entire company to produce VR experiences aimed at reducing pain. The are putting together a whole library of experiences for many different medical scenarios. There are ones meant to calm you down before going into the operating room. There are ones meant for use during surgery; presumably the type of surgery that does not involve being put under! Finally, they have VR experiences meant to help with the postoperative pain issue.
The people from AppliedVR are working with hospitals to refine and test these VR pain interventions and the results are quite amazing. Researchers have found that 20 minutes of calming VR can reduce pain by 24%, which is significant. It means that you can get to an acceptable level of pain without drugs, or become pain free without needing quite as much. It might even be the case that VR could provide relief to people confined to bed and undergoing palliative care, such as those who have terminal cancer. The possibilities for improvements in quality of life excite me most of all.
The Work Ahead
There’s still a lot of research and testing that has to be done before we can even think of making VR pain treatments a mainstream approach to pain control. There are still so many questions. Even if they establish a reliable link between VR and pain relief, we still need to figure out what sorts of experiences work best. Which ones work for what sorts of pain? Does it matter what culture the patient is from? What about their gender or age?
I hope this research is well-supported and that we’re graced with another way to make people experience just a little less suffering in life. That’s not too much to ask.