Virtual Reality: The Alternative To Marijuana And Opioids For Pain Management

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Those who have tried on a virtual reality headset can tell you that the experience is lifelike, almost real. If the projection is of you standing atop a tall building’s edge, you will be afraid of falling – the experience is real enough to fool your brain! Gaming is a natural application of the technology, but what is the application in healthcare and what can it do enhance the patient experience?

The video demonstrates how virtual reality (VR) can improve patients’ lives and aid in recovery, and rehabilitation. Samsung is a notable player in this market that has been perfecting this technology for the past decade.

Today there are several patient-centric applications that have been tested to deliver results leading us to believe that VR could disrupt several industries. For instance, it is emerging to be an excellent substitute for both opioids and even marijuana for pain management. On the top of everything, we have predicted the market for virtual reality and augmented reality for healthcare applications to grow to $5.1 billion by 2025with about 3.4 million patients availing the technology.

Areas of Application

Medical education, surgery, rehabilitation medicine, psychiatry, and psychology could all benefit from this emerging technology.

VR technology has been shown to provide meaningful improvements in five key areas:

  • Prevention: promoting wellness, stress management, and addiction behavior;
  • Improved pain management: distraction experiences as alternatives to pain-killers;
  • Improved training: includes clinical skills training and surgical skill training;
  • Improved adherence: the heightened sense of experience and game-like features of VR training help motivate patients and engage them more fully in the treatment process; and
  • Telemedicine: cellphone-based or standalone VR systems can be used to extend the reach of the clinician, provide healthcare access to underserved populations, support managed home recovery, enhance chronic disease management and protocol adherence, and facilitate for aging in place.

VR Use Cases

Pain-Killer? Take Your Pick: Opioids, Marijuana or Virtual Reality

One of the most common references of VR applications is its use as a “pain-killer”, and is even more relevant today with the ongoing opioid crisis in the United States which has resulted in almost 100 people dying every day due to opioid drug overdoses. In the U.S. alone, 116 million adults struggle with chronic pain at a cost of $635 billion in lost productivity and treatment. In 2012, healthcare providers wrote 259 million prescriptions for painkillers, which is enough for every American adult to have a bottle of pills.

While cannabis is being looked in to as an alternative, the potential of VR, without any potential addiction-risks cannot be overlooked. VR has already proved successful in addressing any pain associated with acute procedures, working by distracting the patients. But chronic pain usage is also coming up, and can significantly improve the lives of those living with chronic pain! AppliedVR has eight distraction applications, including games like ‘Feeding Frenzy’ as well as immersive experiences such as ‘Farm Sanctuary’. In addition, to deal with chronic pain, the company provides solutions such as ‘Mindful Awareness’; ‘Breath Awareness’ for teaching breathing techniques; and positive thinking, to cope with pain. These can also incorporate data from breath and heart rate sensors to provide more personalized effects. Deepstream VR is another company that provides the ‘Cool!’ pain relief application, which has been clinically tested and proven to be effective for chronic pain. Furthermore, CognifiSense uses VR along with data analytics to make chronic pain treatment more personalized to the users. Juno VR is yet another example of one of several companies focusing on pain management applications for VR.

Distraction for Easing Maternal Deliveries and Making Vaccination Tolerable

Not just pain relief from diseases or post-acute procedures, but virtual reality is an effective distraction for other causes of pain as well. From simple vaccination or injection pains for children, to labor pains sans an epidural, virtual reality is equally effective. Pilots are currently being conducted in Sansum Clinic in California and the Cedars Sinai hospital. AppliedVR also has an application for labor and delivery, the ‘Labor Bliss’ that not just distracts, but also teaches coping skills through narrations.

Overcoming Phobias & Healing other Mental Health Conditions

An immersive experience of virtual reality can help patients overcome phobias such as acrophobia (fear of heights), arachnophobia (fear of spiders), fear of flying and social phobias, by acknowledging that the scenarios are not real, boosting their confidence. There are other applications including simulated environments for treating veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and providing relaxing and calming environments for treating stress and anxiety. Several startups provide solutions in these areas including Virtually Better, CleVR, Psious, VirtualRet, ZenZone by Unello, PsicoSmart, and Relax VR.

Fulfilling Dying Wishes

The wishes of those under palliative care can also be addressed by virtual reality, allowing them to travel places without leaving their bed. These could be existing cities or tourist locations, or even museums or other such places of interest. This has been introduced at Bridgepoint Health and the Mount Sinai hospitals in Canada. AppliedVR has the escape category of experiences, which include ‘Escape’ and ‘London’ to provide relief from the realities of lives.

Challenges with VR for Healthcare

Virtual Reality’s healthcare applications have a distinct set of challenges to become widely available. For developers, the challenge is of securing funding and support and convincing those willing to pilot test the technology has been a challenge, though this gradually improving with some pioneering healthcare organizations taking a lead in testing such technology. From the provider adoption standpoint, technical limitations in terms of the size and power of the glasses are a challenge. For example, some clinical settings prevent the use of the large VR glasses, and the existing mobile platform computing power can provide only so much immersive experience. Hopefully, Moore’s law will come to VR’s help and bring the computing power necessary to smaller devices. And finally, for consumers, the biggest hurdle was the cost of these devices, which has prevented mass adoption until now. However, prices have dropped substantially and we are looking at a headset for less than 100 dollars in some cases.

A Consumer Device

Obviously, the long-term strategy for VR is to make it a consumer-driven industry where consumers purchase these products may be through Amazon. Hardware costs of virtual reality glasses are falling, and as that happens, an increasing number of hospitals are considering implementing this technology for their patients. But as adoption increases and prices drop further, virtual reality glasses may even become a consumer device, one that will be purchased like smartphones are today, and each having its own app ecosystem. Samsung already sells its Gear VR system that pairs well with its Galaxy line of smartphones and boasts of over 1,000 apps ecosystem! One of the most popular devices is the Oculus Rift, with some healthcare applications being built on its platform. Apart from relaxing experiences, some companies provide healthcare apps as well. For example, Vivid Vision provides VR eye exercises for people with eye issues such as lazy eye or strabismus.

One of the biggest boons of digital solutions such as virtual reality is that there are no significant side effects, unlike medications. So go ahead, grab that VR headset and take advantage of the therapeutic effects of this amazing technology!

By: Reenita Das, Forbes

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