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Virtual Reality: The New Medicine to Combat Pain

The idea is to learn while you're in virtual reality, that you do have governance over your body.

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Virtual Reality
Virtual Reality Tech Transforming Heart Treatments. Pixabay

Amanda Greene lives with pain.

“If I don’t have nerve pain, I might have joint pain. If I’m not having joint pain, I might have headaches,” Greene said.

The unrelenting pain is a symptom of lupus, an autoimmune disease in which a patient’s immune system attacks the body. Greene has tried acupuncture, massage and opioids, but realized she was allergic to the addictive pain medicine.

The newest therapy that excites her: virtual reality. Greene participated in a test through the company “appliedVR” to see if and how virtual reality could help patients. Greene’s virtual experience helped her to relax and trained her to breathe in a specific way. She saw a tree, crystals, water and her breath as she was guided to inhale and exhale.

“It worked. It works for me,” Greene said. “It’s the quality of life, it is the range of motion, it is like, forget about quality of life, it is the life.”

VR in hospitals and clinics

Brennan Spiegel is a gastroenterologist who has used VR for his patients. He said abdominal pain and gastrointestinal discomfort, in some cases, are related to a patient’s mental state.

“Something like virtual reality actually can intercede in the brain-gut axis and sort of rewire the neurocircuitry in a way that helps to reduce abdominal pain,” said Spiegel, who is also director of Health Services Research at Cedars-Sinai and heads its virtual reality program.

More than 2,500 patients have been treated with virtual reality at Cedars-Sinai, a hospital with the largest documented therapeutic VR program in the world, according to Spiegel.

“Virtual reality can reduce pain, can reduce blood pressure, can improve quality of life, reduce anxiety and now, we’re looking to see can it do really important things like reduce the need for opioids.”

Spiegel said more than 100 hospitals across the United States are using VR as a form of therapy for patients to help manage symptoms such as pain and anxiety. He said an increasing number of countries worldwide are taking an interest, and doctors are starting to develop international guidelines on how to apply and validate the technology in health care.

 

Virtual Reality
A hospital patient uses virtual reality treatment for pain in this undated photo. VOA

Spiegel is now taking virtual reality outside the hospital to partner clinics such as Attune Health in Los Angeles, where many of the patients suffer from autoimmune or inflammatory diseases that cause symptoms such as joint pain.

A rheumatologist and founder of Attune Health, Swamy Venuturupalli is conducting a study on how VR can reduce the pain levels of patients in his clinic. Virtual experiences include swimming with dolphins and meditation exercises before a campfire. Venuturupalli said VR is not just a distraction for patients experiencing pain; it can also train them in deep breathing exercises and biofeedback.

“It allows you to connect with that part of your brain that you’re normally not in contact with — the part of the brain that controls respiration, the part of the brain that controls your heart rate and the emotional part of your brain,” Venuturupalli said.

Doctors are also looking into the potential side effects of VR, such as whether it could be addictive.

“It’s probably unlikely and, in fact, we have not seen abuse amongst our patients who are using it for therapeutic purposes rather than for gaming or entertainment,” Spiegel said.

The most common side effect for some patients, according to Spiegel, is “simulator sickness,” the feeling of dizziness and nausea when the patient is wearing a VR headset. He said less than 10 percent of patients experience this, but the symptoms quickly disappear when the headset comes off.

VR pharmacy and clinics

The company appliedVR uses immersive technology to help people manage pain and anxiety. It also is developing content and working with people in entertainment and academia to find VR experiences appropriate for patients. The vision is to have a VR pharmacy.

“You need a wide variety of content because you have a wide variety of people in health care. From infancy to geriatrics and with every personality type,” said Josh Sackman, president and co-founder of appliedVR.

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Virtual Reality Glasses, Pixabay

Swimming with dolphins may relax one patient, yet terrify another. Greene said watching a fashion show in virtual reality helps her escape her pain.

The medical world’s reaction to using VR in the clinical setting has changed in the past three years, said Sackman. In 2015, he experienced skepticism among doctors who wondered why television or a tablet couldn’t be used to distract patients. Sackman said that unlike a screen, VR blocks out the sights and sounds of a hospital or clinic as soon as the patient puts on the VR headset.

“In a matter of moments, you see a patient who is in agony, in terrible pain, stressed, having panic and all of a sudden, their body relaxes, a smile comes on their face and you see a physical transformation,” Sackman said.

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Spiegel would like to create outpatient VR clinics. He said the aim is not to have patients stay in VR forever.

“The idea is to learn while you’re in virtual reality, that you do have governance over your body, that the mind matters and that you can learn these skills that are then reproduceable and could be called upon when you need them in the real world,” Spiegel said. (VOA)

Next Story

China Excludes Taiwan from Participation in World Health Assembly

WHO estimates it needs $98 million to run its Ebola operation. It is facing a funding shortfall of some $63 million

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World health assembly
Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO) Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus attends the 72nd World Health Assembly in Geneva, Switzerland, May 20, 2019. VOA

Taiwan is protesting China’s decision to exclude the island from participation in the annual World Health Assembly, calling such action an unjustified political move that could harm global health.

The 72nd session of the World Health Organization’s World Health Assembly takes place May 20-28 in Geneva, Switzerland.

This move is particularly ironic this year, as the theme of the assembly is universal health coverage. Taiwan’s national health system is widely considered one of the best in the world.Taiwan’s minister of health and welfare, Chen Shih-chung, says the island is ready to share its experiences on how to achieve affordable, efficient universal health coverage with the global community.

world health assembly
FILE – Chen Shih-chung, Taiwan’s minister of Health and Welfare, is interviewed by Reuters ahead of the World Health Assembly of the World Health Organization in Geneva, May 20, 2017. VOA

“However, under pressure from the People’s Republic of China, Taiwan is currently excluded by WHO from the global health network,” Chen said. “Inviting Taiwan to participate in the WHA would be consistent with WHO’s espousal of health for all.”

The health minister notes Taiwan’s exclusion poses health risks to everyone. Chen says diseases do not stop at borders, and international cooperation is needed to combat epidemics that could spread to every corner of the world.

Chen tells VOA he has written several letters to WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus to protest Taiwan’s exclusion from the World Health Assembly. Chen says he has received no response. He says WHO has even rejected Taiwan’s offer for help in combating the Ebola epidemic in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

world health assembly
WHO estimates it needs $98 million to run its Ebola operation. It is facing a funding shortfall of some $63 million. Wikimedia Commons

“Our president announced we would donate $1 million U.S. to combat Ebola; but this donation, even this donation was not accepted by the WHO. So, this is a pity in our situation. We want to do something, but WHO did not accept us to do something for the world,” Chen said.

ALSO READ: Washington Becomes First State to Approve Composting of Human Remains

WHO estimates it needs $98 million to run its Ebola operation. It is facing a funding shortfall of some $63 million.

Despite pressure from China, Taiwan’s officials say they have received support for their bid to join the WHO from a number of countries including the United States, Japan, Germany and Australia. (VOA)