No meds needed: Virtual reality therapy reduces pain for hospital patients, study finds

LOS ANGELES — Medical centers may want to consider going high-tech when it comes to pain relief treatments. A new study finds that patients who participate in virtual reality therapy report significantly reduced pain without the help of medications.

Fifty patients with pain scores greater than three on the Numeric Pain Rating Scale participated in calming virtual reality game sessions and experienced a notable drop in pain scores. They wore the Samsung Gear headset for 15 minutes to virtually swim with whales and fly over picturesque stretches of Iceland. These patients reported experiencing a 24 percent drop in pain scores.

Woman using virtual reality headset
A new study finds that hospital patients who participate in virtual reality therapy report significant levels of reduced pain without any help from meds.

Fifty other patients with the same initial pain score range viewed a two-dimensional film with soothing natural scenes and music on a 14-inch bedside screen. These patients experienced a lesser pain decrease of 13.2 percent.

“We believe virtual reality hijacks the senses, but in a good way. It creates an immersive distraction that stops the mind from processing pain, offering a drug-free supplement to traditional pain management,” Brennan Spiegel, M.D., director of Cedars-Sinai’s Health Service Research and one of the study’s authors, explained in a hospital press release.

The researchers also found 65 percent of patients in the VR cohort achieved a pain response versus 40 percent of the patients in the control group. Patients experiencing nausea, seizure, vomiting, motion sickness, stroke, dementia, and epilepsy and those in isolation were excluded from the study.

“Results indicate virtual reality may be an effective tool along with traditional pain management protocols,” concludes Spiegel.

Because the VR therapy intervention was brief, the patients’ pain might rebound, the researchers warn. Spiegel says a larger trial is now being carried out “to measure the impact of virtual reality on the use of pain medications, length of hospital stay and post-discharge satisfaction scores.”

These findings were published in “Virtual Reality for Management of Pain in Hospitalized Patients: Results of a Controlled Trial” in JMIR Mental Health.

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