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Study: Virtual Reality Therapy Could Reduce Pain for Hospitalized Patients

April 6, 2017
by Rajiv Leventhal
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Virtual reality therapy can be effective in significantly reducing pain for hospitalized patients, according to a new study conducted at Los Angeles-based Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

In the study, published online by JMIR Mental Health, investigators examined 100 hospitalized patients who reported pain scores of greater than 3 on the Numeric Pain Rating Scale, which runs from 0 to 10.

For the study, 50 patients received virtual reality therapy consisting of wearing virtual reality (VR) goggles to watch calming video content such as helicopter rides over scenic portions of Iceland, or imagery of swimming in the ocean with whales. Those patients reported a 24 percent drop in pain scores after using the virtual reality goggles. Another 50 patients viewed a standard, two-dimensional nature video, depicting relaxing scenes with a calming music audio track, on a close-proximity screen. Although those patients also experienced a reduction in pain, the decrease of 13.2 percent was less dramatic, according to the research.

“Results indicate virtual reality may be an effective tool along with traditional pain management protocols," said Brennan Spiegel, M.D., director of Cedars-Sinai Health Services Research. "This gives doctors and patients more options than medication alone." While it remains unknown exactly how VR works to reduce pain, Spiegel attributed the benefit to what he called "immersive distraction." In other words, when the mind is deeply engaged in an immersive experience, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to perceive other stimuli, including pain.

Because the VR intervention was only 15 minutes long and included only one visualization, it is possible that pain could rebound after completion of the therapy session, Spiegel said. Longer-term pain reduction might require sustained and repeated exposure to varied virtual reality content, he said. "Based on this study, we're now conducting a larger trial to measure the impact of virtual reality on the use of pain medications, length of hospital stay and post-discharge satisfaction scores," Spiegel said.

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