An adult wearing and interacting with a Virtual Reality headset. You can see a representation of the VR screen.

VR: A New Treatment for Chronic Pain?

A friend on Facebook recently posted an article about virtual reality (VR) being a possible tool or treatment to help patients with chronic pain: "Immersion in Virtual Reality Scenes of the Arctic Helps to Ease People's Pain." I don't know that much about VR, and I've only tried it once briefly, but this article and the study it's based on made me stop and think: Well, that's interesting...and kind of weird. But does it work?

Research on virtual reality and pain sensitivity

According to the article for Science Daily, "Scientists from Imperial College London have found that using virtual reality headsets could combat increased sensitivity to pain, by immersing people in scenes of icebergs, frigid oceans, and sprawling ice-scapes. In a small study, published in Pain Reports, a team from Imperial used VR video to reduce peoples' scores of perceived ongoing pain as well their sensitivity to painful stimuli."1

So let me get this straight: Being immersed in a world of frigid, arctic temperatures and landscapes via virtual reality can help ease pain? The icy, cold factor of this makes a lot of sense to me, actually. Whenever my RA flares up, it's cold and ice that makes my pain better. Cool, dry weather also helps my painful and swollen joints a lot. Heat and humidity and tropical weather, on the other hand, increase my pain and swelling and cause a lot of extra misery. When I'm hurting, I prefer my joints and my body to be cool or even cold.

What is virtual reality?

What exactly is virtual reality (VR), anyway? According to Wikipedia, "Virtual reality is a simulated experience that can be similar to or completely different from the real world. Applications of virtual reality can include entertainment (i.e. gaming) and educational purposes (i.e. medical or military training). Standard virtual reality systems use either headsets or multi-projected environments to generate realistic images, sounds and other sensations that simulate a user's physical presence in a virtual environment. A person using virtual reality equipment is able to look around the artificial world, move around in it, and interact with virtual features or items."2

VR to transport us to another world

In other words, whenever you participate in a VR experience, you slip on one of these special futuristic-looking headsets (that covers your eyes), and you're then transported to another world or "reality" where you get to interact in that world, whatever it is. And according to the Imperial London study, escaping into a chilly arctic world can help relieve one's burning, stabbing, chronic pain.

How does virtual reality ease physical, chronic pain?

But how does using VR actually work to ease real, physical pain? According to the Science Daily article, researchers think immersing patients in VR isn't just a distraction, but "may actually trigger the body's own inbuilt pain-fighting systems--reducing their sensitivity to painful stimuli and reducing the intensity of ongoing pain."1

Would I try virtual reality for my RA?

Hmm! Really? Living with RA and chronic pain for 22 years, and never once going into remission, has forced me into trying many different medications and treatments over the years. I often get incredibly frustrated and exhausted trying out new things and having other people push new treatments and "miracle cures" at me.

More on this topic

Despite this, and my growing cynicism and apathy, I am still open to finding new ways to help my RA and my pain. On one hand, I'm simply desperate for something to actually work. Yet, on the other hand, I'm so fed up with all of the "experiments" my body has gone through with little to no success, that I don't even want to try anymore. But, honestly, I do want to keep trying, of course. I just want to feel and be better so that I can live my life.

Am I willing to strap on one of these space-age VR headsets and take a freezing trip to the Arctic to help my pain? Sure, why not? I am a hardy Scandinavian Minnesotan, after all. Take me to the North Pole! And please take away my pain--even just for a little bit. I don't think I'd mind being immersed in a world of ice and snow and beautiful wintery landscapes.

Excited for future research on virtual reality

Even though the Imperial College London's study is a small one, I'm very curious and excited to see what the future holds for VR technology in connection with helping chronic pain patients. We need all the help and relief we can find, and we need better alternatives to pain medication that's growing increasingly impossible to get, thanks to the "opioid crisis." So sure, sign me up and strap me in for a nordic adventure! However, I also wouldn't mind being whisked away to a relaxing, beautiful beach, now that I think of it.

 

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